10 min read

Separate The Skin From Bone

Separate The Skin From Bone

On Slipknot, magic mushrooms, and overcoming your fear of death

THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON MAY 28, 2021

Warning: the following story involves recreational psychedelic drug use. It is in no way an endorsement of illegal drugs. The author is sober. Also, if you're my mom, please stop reading now.

In the summer of 2016, I was preparing to get married to my long-term girlfriend and struggling worse than ever with crippling anxiety brought on by a months-long battle with existential dread. Life was never as full or busy as it was at that time, but I couldn't shake the notion that I was not long for the Earth. I was only twenty-nine, but each day felt like a waiting room for my inevitable demise. So much so that my partner recommended that I make an appointment with a medical professional who could confirm whether or not I was, in fact, near death.

After a routine checkup, the doctor asked, "Did you have any questions for me?"

"Doc, I'm pretty sure I'm going to die. I know you said everything seems normal, and I have no obvious problems, but there is a voice in my head that is telling me I have a date with the void."

I'll never forget their response.

"Well," the doctor said with a bit of a sigh, "You're nearly thirty. As we speak, your body is beginning to transition away from the growth stage of life. You are, for lack of a better description, beginning to decay. What you're feeling, and what I'll guess that voice is trying to tell you, is that you're entering a new phase of existence. It's perfectly normal to feel this way, but if you like, I am more than happy to prescribe you Xanax."

Shocked that a medical professional paid to be honest with me told me the truth, I sat stunned while processing the information. Was my Peter Pan phase over? Is this what it really means to become an adult? Was life itself insisting I take my time on this Earth a bit more seriously? I took the pills home and sat the bottle beside my turntable, where they would collect dust until I eventually chose to throw them out.

Around the same time, I planned to spend a weekend in Chicago with my close friend and soon-to-be best man, Ben. He and I had spent the better part of a decade running a music website and covering concerts of all varieties. Our idea of hanging out was working together to create content or run away from any traditional life. He was my photographer and cameraman, and I was the guy who could not shut up. We were and are the perfect team, and he told me that weekend would be one to remember.

Chicago Open Air was a brand new festival featuring three full days of rock and metal headliners performing in a small-scale stadium on the city's outskirts. There were plenty of artists to cover, but the draw for both Ben and I was Slipknot. The Iowa-born metal group was a bucket list band for the of us. We had spent many nights in college listening to their albums while working on our music blog or traveling between gigs. Like most young men born a decade before the new millennium, we felt Slipknot was in a league of their own, and we saw Chicago Open Air as a chance to watch those metal deities perform in front of a sold-out crowd of equally excited fans.

Slipknot has always fascinated me. While many other metal artists cover apocalyptic themes and preach ideals of alpha male dominance, Slipknot revels in the idea of ego death. Their music acknowledges how awful humanity is, both towards the Earth and one another. Songs such as "People = Shit" off their wildly successful album Iowa make this belief clear. Take the track's ferocious first verse:

Come on down and see the idiot right here
Too fucked to beg and not afraid to care
What's the matter with calamity anyway?
Right? Get the fuck outta my face
Understand I can't feel anything
It isn't like I wanna sift through the decay
I feel like a wound like I got a fucking gun against my head
You live when I'm dead

There is an anger here that no other artist can duplicate. The song takes aim at the idiocy of people while also acknowledging that we are part of the problem. We know how awful we are, and the vast majority choose to do nothing about it. After all, what is the point? We live, and we die. Nothing can change the end of the story, so why not ride this thing out until our bones turn to dust? Maybe such a perspective makes a person appear cold or uncaring, but that is most people's outlook. The idea of change, let alone the work required to implement it, is almost scarier than existence. Slipknot writes songs for self-aware narcissists who long for a savior they don't believe in to rescue them from the impossible burden of being. That conundrum is, to them and their fans, the very definition of life itself.

Slipknot was scheduled to close the festival's final day, which gave us essentially three full days of nonstop performances followed by late nights of writing and editing. Ben and I shared a small room in a La Quinta Inn roughly 20 minutes from the venue, which doubled our office. The sun was hot, and the drinks were expensive. The distance from the main stage to the side stage was long and required several flights of stairs and rubbing shoulder to shoulder with countless strangers.

When Sunday night finally came around, the energy in the stadium was palpable. The weekend-long event would end with headline performances from Marilyn Manson, Five Finger Death Punch, and Slipknot. Ben and I found a grassy hill near the back of the stadium filled with overheated concertgoers. We sat among them as Ben flipped through his camera's memory card, looking for the 'must keep' shots, and I typed random observations into a fresh note in my iPhone. It was a moment we had shared a million times before and one we still regularly share today. That is until Ben broke the short-lived silence between us with an announcement.

"You're getting married soon," he said in a way that toed the line between question and statement. "That's wild."

"Less than a month now," I said.

"I know you're not a bachelor party kind of guy," Ben said accurately. "But I feel I owe you some kind of last hurrah before your big day."

I cautiously replied, "What did you have in mind?"

At this point, Ben reached into his camera bag and produced his surprise party supplies. He had two blunts and a bag of mushrooms.

"I think this should do the trick," he said with a wry smile.

The weed didn't surprise me. Never one for drinking despite countless attempts to find joy in it, marijuana was the one social drug I could handle. The mushrooms, however, were new.

Ben, recognizing my innocence, immediately took on the role of shaman. He lit the blunts as the headline performance started, just as the sun was setting, and we waded deep into the frenzied crowd. The sun fell out of the sky as frontman Corey Taylor stomped up and down the stage delivering his vocals with brutal force. Ben reached into the bag of shriveled fungus and procured a small amount for both of us to consume. They tasted like dirt soaked in cheap coffee, but as he explained, "it was all part of the experience."

Maybe it was the excitement of the moment or the fear someone would know we were on drugs, but that initial handful of shrooms did nothing for me. When the show ended, and we got a ride back to the hotel, Ben once again pulled the bag from his pack and offered them to me. I didn't know how many to take, but I didn't want to say that, so I chose instead to spend the following twenty minutes eating what remained like potato chips in-between reflections on the day we'd shared. Ben did the same.

Maybe you know this already, but eating magic mushrooms like potato chips over an extended period is not the way most would tell you to consume them. Nobody told me this, so I'm informing you now. Don't be like me.

After some leftover pizza, we mutually agreed to lay in our beds and try to rest. We assumed that the combination of sun, dehydration, weed and shrooms had made us so tired we could not possibly trip, so we chose instead to sleep.

Not more than five minutes after turning off the lights, I began to feel different. The height of mushrooms is more subtle than weed, at least at first. It feels a bit like lightness, as if whatever is weighing you down suddenly falls away. Some may call it bliss, but I believe I told Ben it felt like the universe gave me a hug I didn't know I needed. He giggled the way that characters in movies do when they get too high. Then he began laughing loudly, and when I asked what was so funny, he replied, "tequila squirt gun." I tried to ask for more details, but he couldn't find the words. "Tequila squirt gun," he said again, "Just…tequila squirt gun."

As I lay in my bed trying to figure out what my friend is babbling about, I suddenly became very aware of the darkness around me. The curtains were pulled, rendering the room so dark that I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. I thought the only difference between where I was, and the infinite void of non-existence was my awareness of what was happening. It felt for a moment like I might have a panic attack. That all the thoughts about death and dying were bubbling to the surface and that there was nothing I could do to stop it. For all I knew at that moment, this was the death my brain was trying to warn me about the last several months prior. That night was going to be the night that I died, and everyone would talk about how I predicted my demise.

As my trip continued, I watched and felt as though I was transforming into nothingness; I felt only a calming warmth. I realized that James was not disappearing as much as I was returning to the source. We are taught our entire lives that the atoms in our body were once part of the stars in the sky, and at that moment, I knew it was true. I knew that the death of my physical form would lead to a new journey for everything that makes me who I am. The molecules in my body will go on to become part of something else or even dozens or possibly thousands of other things. Whatever it is that makes me human will cease to be, but that Is not the end of the journey. It is an evolution, be it spiritual or otherwise, that will play out repeatedly throughout eternity.

There were moments during this revelatory trip where I snapped back to reality and remembered that I was lying on a cheap hotel bed high on psychedelic drugs. I knew the images playing in my mind resulted from the mushrooms that I had consumed earlier in the evening, but each time I had that thought, I found myself plunged back into the same adventure I described above. I watched myself float into deep space and dissolve a dozen times that night, and each time the calming sensation of being at peace washed over me. I was never afraid. Not once.

I would later learn that the reason the experience happened multiple times was my decision to eat the mushrooms like potato chips over several hours. Rather than one long trip, the drugs acted like a sort of pogo stick, bouncing me from reality into the trip and back again. Someone more experienced than me later compared my journey to microdosing, except I did it numerous times throughout a single night instead of stretching the doses out over weeks or months.

When I fell asleep that night is a mystery, but by the time I woke up, all the anxiety and dread that I had been feeling for what felt like forever was gone. I was comfortable not only with myself but with my impending fate. It no longer mattered if I died that day or in 50 years because I knew my journey would not end with my final heartbeat. Everything that makes me who I am, that special sauce we call individualism, was a part of the universe long before the person writing this was born, and it will continue to exist long after my body decays. I cannot tell you if some level of consciousness is associated with whatever form it takes next, but I know it will go somewhere and become something. The things I hold closest, the things I fear losing forever when I die, will still float around the galaxies for as long as such things exist. Maybe they're immortal. I don't know, and you know what? I'm okay with not knowing.

Finding a way to tell the story has always been challenging. I never want to encourage drug use, especially with mushrooms, but I feel the same five years later as I did that morning. Whenever I encounter a friend or stranger who confides in me a deep sense of existential dread, I tell them the story. I told him about the night I watched my body dissolve in the vast expanse of space while my best friend giggled about tequila squirt guns 3 feet away. I do my best to make an impossible experience sound grounded in some sense of reality, but I'm sure I could never do it justice. What I do know for sure, and what I hope you one day realize, is that these flesh suits we call bodies are merely cages for our spirits. When our physical forms fail, which they will for every last one of us, that part of you who is scared of the unknown will continue to exist. Perhaps that is just as terrifying as death itself, but I hope you find comfort in knowing you are eternal. You are the product of stardust, and if you're lucky, one day, you will shine bright over people who look to the sky and hope existence is not as awful and futile as it seems.