Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 4.0]

Chapter IV

 

September 20, 1990, barely a month into my senior year at 3:30 p.m., I opened my acceptance letter to the university I’d applied to in Florida. My fantasy for a fresh start included joining a sorority with the hopes of finding some close girlfriends for once. Somewhere, I’d gotten the impression that girls from places outside my hometown would be different—more kind, less “small-town” and petty—and all-around more genuine. I envisioned running around in fuzzy pajamas, attending popcorn slumber parties, and being surrounded nonstop by happy girls who treated you like a sister.

Sorority RUSH took place the two weeks prior to the start of fall semester. Both Dad and Bridget made the drive to Florida to drop me off and ensure I was set up. On the second night, there was a meeting for all RUSHEES, facilitated by our assigned “Rho-Chi,” who was an absolutely beautiful, tall blonde with a bob haircut and a face like Tatum O’Neal. She explained the RUSH process and gave us some pointers. The first day of RUSH, we would go to all thirty sorority houses to meet one sister from each house for about five minutes; first impressions were obviously critical. Early each morning, we would gather to receive our bids from the day before.

The ideal scenario was that all thirty houses liked you and you received bids from them all. If that happened, then you got to select the ones you wanted to pursue in the next round. In each round, we visited fewer houses for longer periods. When the dress requirements were handed out, it was clear my wardrobe didn’t contain anything that would work. I asked Dad for some money, and he said I’d need to do my best with $100. I purchased one button-up, knee-length, royal blue dress and two sundresses, hoping those would get me through the first few rounds. If I made it to the last rounds, Dad said he’d help me get a more formal gown.

The first day of RUSH was a whirlwind. There were about twenty-five of us in our herd, sweating our buns off and trying to hide our nervousness. Well, except for two of the girls—two very pretty, stunningly fit college cheerleaders who didn’t appear nervous in the least. They just practiced their cheers and dance routines in between house visits. I envied their confidence and couldn’t help listening in to their conversations about who they knew in which house, which parties they were considering that night, the cool guys they’d met, and their upcoming football game travels. I tried to make conversation with them once, but was snubbed, like most of the others were. I consoled myself with the thought that others would surely see through their fake “act” and not select them for their house.

No such luck. RUSH turned out to be a cruel, unforgiving process. When I received my bid cards day two, I’d only been invited back to fifteen houses. I was further heartbroken to hear the squeals of the cheerleaders, who were, of course, asked back to all thirty houses. I racked my brain wondering what I’d done wrong. I was as genuinely friendly and polite as I knew how to be. What were the criteria exactly? Part of me was afraid to know.

After round two, only five houses were still interested in getting to know me. I tried to look on the bright side. The one house I really liked was on that list of five. I’d had a great conversation with one of the girls there; we’d laughed and talked about music. I held out hope. However, after round three, I was cut from that house and there were only two houses left—neither of which I felt any connection to. One was even Jewish. The Rho Chi tried to console me by saying I probably just didn’t have a “legacy” (a what?). She was too nice to tell me, but I knew it was my two-bit tacky clothes, Payless shoes, and still-too-big hair that probably screamed poor Midwestern redneck. Oh well. It was over. I quit the process and made a humiliating call to my parents, sobbing for them to come back down to Florida and bring me back home.

Bridget and Dad did not take the news well. This was highly inconvenient, as well as incredibly selfish of me. Didn’t I understand that I couldn’t just change my mind and expect them to waste all their time and money? They advised me to stick with it for at least a semester and then transfer to a school closer to home.

A few days later, my new roommate showed up and turned out to be a fundamentalist Christian. She was a straight A student who played the trumpet in the college band and dated a senior—also in the band—an odd fellow by the way, whom I walked in on one day and caught putting on my eyeliner. I watched Katie read her Bible in the morning and then listened to her and her boyfriend groping each other on the top bunk at night. In spite of her declarations that all the people of China were going to rot in hell, she managed to have tons of friends and a community to belong to.

I focused on my classes and soon met two friendly girls from across the hall, Pam and Melissa. They were pretty, smart, and loved to party. I clicked instantly with Pam, a short blonde, who was really animated and hilarious. But, since she was in a serious relationship with a boy from back home, she wasn’t around much. Her roommate, Melissa, also had a ton of energy and spoke authoritatively about everything, as if her opinions were fact. She sometimes commanded me—in her own sweet way—to do things for her that she could have done herself, like “Go get that blanket over there, for me, K? Thanks, Love.” I was in awe of how she could pull this off so well. She was popular, yet she let me tag along to parties with her, and at one of them, she got a hold of some LSD and wasted no time popping it in her mouth. It was clear she was having a blast that night and told me everyone at the party was on it. I was too scared to try it then, but it was something I’d been very curious about, especially since watching The Doors movie. I also knew The Beatles and the members of other bands I loved had done it.

When I went home for Thanksgiving break, I cornered dad alone and told him I was curious about trying it.

“Dad, there’s a really cool and smart girl on my floor who can get us some LSD. I’ve always been curious about it and figure, if I’m going to try it for the first time, she’s a good person to do it with. I’ve seen her on it and it looked really fun. I know that a lot of people say drugs are bad for you. But, do you think it’s really dangerous?”

“That depends. Some people do think doing any kind of drug is bad, but I personally think some drugs are worse than others. I was always curious to try cocaine, but that drug is ‘physiologically addicting,’ like cigarettes, alcohol, and heroine, meaning that your body can become dependent on them and you can have painful withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop. I’ve always stayed away from addictive drugs, and I’m glad I never tried cocaine now, because who knows how my heart might have reacted. But, LSD is not considered physiologically addicting, so I wouldn’t worry about that aspect of it.”

“So, why do people think it’s so ‘bad’ to do all drugs?”

“Well, it’s like everything else. People tell their kids not to have sex or do drugs because they are ‘bad.’ That bothers me because it sends the wrong message. Because when kids do try sex and drugs they discover they feel good. Drugs and sex are definitely reinforcing and so kids then wonder what other ‘bad’ things they ‘aren’t supposed to do.’ Soon they believe that their parents lied to them or didn’t give them all the information, and that can erode kids’ trust in their parents about everything. I think it would be better for adults to be honest and admit that doing those things feels good and then talk about the legitimate concerns they have about sex and drugs.”

“Like what?”

“Well, that sex can lead to STDs and unwanted pregnancy. And, people who do drugs can find them more reinforcing than anything else they do in their lives, until soon they become addicted and find any way they can to do the drugs instead of their jobs and other responsibilities. Some become so addicted they will lie, steal, and kill to get money for drugs. Sometimes addicts accidentally overdose on too much of a drug and kill themselves. There are several documented studies where rats and monkeys were allowed to press a lever to self-administer either food—or a drug like heroin or cocaine. The animals chose to self-administer the drug instead of the food, even if they ended up dying of starvation.”

“Wow. But those are the addictive drugs, right? I can understand why those drugs are illegal, but why would LSD be?”

“Well, since LSD is a mind-altering drug and not one approved for medicinal purposes, it has never been tested or approved by the FDA or any other reliable consumer protection agency. That means there has never been quality control in the manufacturing of mind-altering drugs and therefore it is possible to get contaminated drugs. I never trusted the psychedelics myself just because you never know who made them and if they knew what they were doing. Even the famous chemist, Kary Mullis, who discovered the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) technology and won the Nobel Prize for it, made a bad batch by mis-measuring the amount of a critical chemical and putting in ten times too much! And, as far as the government was concerned, the Nixon Administration thought the communists were behind the drugs in order to corrupt our youth and almost all governments think that mind-altering drugs would pose a threat to their ability to keep social order.’”

“Do you know what LSD is like?”

“It stands for Lysergic Acid Diethylamide. From what I’ve read, it’s a hallucinogen that alters your thinking processes, like your sense of space and time, and causes visual and auditory distortions. It activates your brain’s pleasure centers—and possibly the area of the brain responsible for dreaming—by interfering with serotonin and dopamine release and reuptake. It’s not known to cause brain damage. It was very popular in ‘the sixties’ and a lot of creative people and academics have experimented with it to alter their thinking. I’ll give you some information to read about it so you can make a more educated decision.”

He warned me to make sure I got the acid from a trustworthy person so I knew what I was getting, and he said to never drive a car while on it. Then he took me to the basement and gave me: a meta-analysis from a journal on the physiological effects of LSD in the brain; an article by Timothy Leary (the “pro” perspective); and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test book, which I came to view as a “con” perspective. Handing it all over, he simply said, “Let me know what you decide.” I devoured the material and felt positive with my decision to try it.

When I returned from break, I told Melissa to count me in on her next trip. “Excellent!” she screamed, and we met in her room that Saturday night. Another girlfriend of hers, Miranda, joined us. Miranda seemed a little skittish; she kept her head down a lot and had naturally bugged-out eyes that darted all over the place. We dropped the acid around 8 p.m., and Melissa popped in Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit album. I’d never heard anything so cool and gritty before. Thirty minutes later, I got a horrific case of the uncontrollable giggles, which then turned into full-blown hysterical laughter. I lost the ability to find a pattern in the music and recognize where one song stopped and another began. My brain tingled and felt so good, I apologized to it for not feeding it this wonderful brain food sooner.

Melissa told me to get a grip on my giggles; it was time to leave for the “underground” club. A favorite DJ of hers was spinning that night. We got in some cute guy’s car and I felt safe in the backseat with Melissa holding my hand. When we stepped out onto the street, I had no idea where I was. Melissa led us through a maze of walls in between what seemed like massive skyscrapers, then down some stairs, and up to a guy sitting on a stool checking IDs. She showed a membership card and said we were her guests. We walked into a dark, open warehouse filled with thumping, upbeat music.

Melissa yelled to me over the music, “It’s techno! Please tell me you’ve heard of techno music before.”

She knew we didn’t get much alternative culture in the Midwest. She introduced me to a few friends of hers. One was really small guy named Adam, who had long black curly hair, far apart eyes, and a nose that hooked. She told him I had “dropped” for the first time, and his face lit up. He started making ghost noises at me slowly and then he revved up to a witch’s cackle.

“Wooooooh. Wooooooh. Nya Nya Nya! I bet I look really WEIRD and CREEEEEEEEEPY right now, huh? Don’t get freaked out, Little Girl!” Then he doubled over laughing.

But, I couldn’t laugh. His bizarre behavior terrified me. As soon as he left, I told Melissa I was starting to feel sick.

She calmly and convincingly said, “No, you’re not. Everyone feels this way their first time. It will get overwhelming sometimes, so just keep a grip and go along for the ride. It’s going to last a while. Embrace it. Enjooooooy it!” Then she kissed me on the cheek and floated away to talk to some of her other friends.

Across the room and to my left, I saw a futuristic-looking alcove with a silver couch and twelve TV screens mounted on the wall. They were synched to each display the exact same image sometimes, and other times they worked together to create one big image. This made them seem alive and intelligent. I wanted a closer look. It took an exceedingly long time to cross the room until I realized I’d travelled through a secret wormhole created by the club owner to ensure we nonmembers remained confused about what we’d seen there that night.

On the silver couch there sat a guy, smiling at the TVs and seductively licking a lollipop. He motioned for me to sit down and then offered me some ecstasy. I’d never heard of it, so I politely declined, but I wondered just how many other types of drugs there were. I asked him what it felt like and he said like a constant orgasm. I couldn’t think of a decent response to that other than “Oh? Wow.” We watched the screens until a loop of marching penguins morphed into a loop of marching Nazis. I felt the sickness returning, so I quickly headed back to the main room.

The club was filling up and the music had intensified. I sat down on a high bar stool and watched Melissa dancing in the middle of the floor. She was next to a very tall guy with Elvis hair dressed in all black. He was wearing chunky ankle-high platform boots that restricted the movement of his bottom half, so all he could do was stomp rigidly forward and backwards. I watched as his form slowly morphed into Frankenstein’s monster. And, dancing with the monster was a tiny girl with very long blond hair. She was wearing black Mary Janes, bold black-and-white striped tights, and a short, ruffled baby-blue dress. O-mi-god—it’s Alice from Alice in Wonderland! And the guy in the green top hat dancing with the girl in the white dress—that’s Peter Piper, and Mary, from “Mary Had a Little Lamb”! Holy shit! I was on to something really huge.

I’d found evidence that fairy tale characters really do exist. They must be allowed to escape from their stories and spend nights as “humans,” dancing and eating acid. It made perfect sense. Melissa said this was an “underground,” secret club. This must be the big secret! What a perfect place for famous people to come and not be recognized and harassed by the public and their fans. It gave me great pleasure to see these characters having such fun when they had sacrificed their lives to bring joy to so many of us. I wanted to run over and thank them, but I figured I should respect their privacy and not blow their “covers” in case there were others in the club who didn’t recognize them.

Around 1 a.m., Melissa dragged me out to the dance floor. I didn’t recognize the body I was in for a minute. I watched Melissa’s body interpret the music and saw she made no specific moves; she just moved her entire body in fluid motion to the sounds swirling around us. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine making my body move like hers. Soon, I was grabbing the beat, and after a few songs, I felt more comfortable—until I could no longer feel my body at all. I was “one” with the music; it was controlling me. Or rather the DJ was. No sooner did I synch my movements to the beat, he would speed it up then slow it down again.

Sometimes the song would change entirely in an instant. The beat would disappear and I would just hear trance-like voices calling out in the darkness, sounds that flowed right through me physically. Some beats went into my stomach and danced around. Others wrapped themselves around my heart and squeezed it. Others crawled up the back of my neck and tapped on the top of my head. I was completely at the mercy of the DJ who was deliberately teasing all of us. For hours, I lost touch with space and time, along with executive control of my body while it danced to rhythms on its own. I was just an isolated brain floating on the dance floor, watching my body go crazy…until Melissa grabbed my arm to leave.

When we walked outside, it was light out—7 a.m.! Melissa asked me what I thought, if I’d had fun. Not recognizing my own voice for a few seconds, I heard myself blurt out, “I loved it. It was the most awesome thing I’ve ever done!” The other girl we’d come with, Miranda suddenly appeared out of nowhere and stared at us, looking grim and miserable. Her eyes were pulsing and slowly bulging in and out of her head.

They’re under too much stress, I thought.

Her buggy eyes were two little creatures that had lives and desires of their own and were trying to get out of Miranda’s gloomy head. I tried to block this thought out. She kept mumbling that she’d had a horrible trip and just wanted to get home.

Thankfully, the cab dropped her off at her apartment first. When I got back to my room, I lay on my bed, looking up at the underside of my roommate’s bunk, and contemplated the experience. It wasn’t at all like I thought it was going to be. I loved it. I wanted to do it again and again and again. But a part of me sensed I liked it a little too much. A little frightened by the sudden craving, I told myself I probably shouldn’t do it very often. I began doubting my decision to leave the university, but that ball was already in motion There was no way my parents were going to let me change my mind another time. I was going to have to live with my choice and try to make the best of it. I chastised myself for being such an emotional wimp and for giving up so soon.

******

I was sad to say good-bye to the few friends I’d met that semester, but in January, I moved into the dorms at a big university in my home state with one of the few girls from my high school who didn’t hate me. Molly was starting a semester late, so I think we were both just glad to not get stuck with total strangers. I don’t know what scary things I thought a stranger would do that a known-entity wouldn’t, because as it turned out, Molly liked to walk casually around our tiny room—buck-naked—and chatter at me, while grooming her pubic hair and tweezing her nipples. I was modest to the extreme about my own body, rarely uncovering completely, even when I was alone.

Molly also had a revolving door of men around. I’m sure she tried her best to have sex with them quietly in the night, but the slurping and queeffing of his penis in and out of her seemed amplified in the darkness. I began wearing ear plugs to bed. After a semester, I think we both knew we just didn’t like each other all that much, so I applied for a single room. To console me, my parents said that if I really wanted to, I could return to Florida the next fall. Immediately, I thought that was exactly what I would do. After all, I really had come to love my life and friends in Florida. But then, in February, I met Trey Hummel.

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