If you spend any time on online forums dedicated to recreational drug use, you are likely to gain a growing admiration for a member named SWIM. There is a forum for every kind of drug user, ranging from Erowid, which is supposed to mean “earth wisdom” in unidentified ancient tongues, to the more straightforward Drugs-Forum. They are full of self-made scholars, taking on the role of both researcher and lab rat. They engage in rigorous self-experimentation, with control groups and digitally calibrated scales, submitting extensively detailed reports to the community. Peer review can be tough, as these forums often have rules, both written and unwritten, that hold each user to a high standard. But on every forum, SWIM stands out from the crowd.
SWIM has done it all, from the most obscure pharmaceuticals to the hardest street drugs, at every dosage, in every combination. SWIM has shot black tar heroin in Thailand, drunk ayahuasca in Peru, binged on Quaaludes in Beverly Hills. SWIM has been to hell and back, cheated death, seen God. SWIM has survived hospital stays, nights in jail, leaps from treacherous heights. But like any legend worth the designation, SWIM is an enigma, impossible to know firsthand. Other users endlessly refer to SWIM’s experiments, but novices search in vain for posts actually written by SWIM. There are none to be found. This absence results in a recurring refrain from first-time posters: “By the way—who the fuck is SWIM?”
In a who-the-fuck-is-SWIM thread on Reddit’s LSD forum, an old hand is cagey about revealing SWIM’s secret identity. “SWIM is the top poster. He’s been around since 1997, a huge name around all the big online circles.” What the author of this post wasn’t willing to give away is that SWIM doesn’t exist.
SWIM is not a person, but a concept—an acronym: Someone Who Isn’t Me. Use of the term originated on a forum called the Hive, which went online in 1997, where it was believed to provide plausible deniability to members if their posts were ever discovered by law enforcement and traced to their IP addresses. A less systematic solution was to refer to a pet: “My dog took three Percocets, two Tums, and drank a 12 oz bottle of white grapefruit juice, and says the high lasted 45 minutes longer than usual.”
Before the Hive, there was alt.drugs. The alt forum was the dark underbelly of Usenet, a network of “newsgroups” started in 1980 that prefigured today’s social media. But Usenet’s administrators were total squares, tending to prohibit certain taboo subjects from coming up. So in 1987, libertarian activist John Gilmore and computer scientist Brian Reid started a renegade subgroup called “alt,” devoted to to the discussion of sex, drugs, and rock and roll—those were literally the first three categories Reid created.
Over the course of the 1990s, Usenet was gradually superseded by the “bulletin board systems” we are familiar with today. Many alt.drug users settled into the Hive, which emphasized the actual chemical synthesis of drugs while winkingly insisting its content was “hypothetical” in case the feds were watching. But the Hive closed up shop in 2004, a few years after its founder was arrested for manufacturing designer drugs. Its users scattered out into a series of smaller, less tightly regulated forums, and the further they spread, the more confusion SWIM caused. “I thought he was like the crazy ass mofo that founded the forum,” says a Reddit user in the comments of another who-the-fuck-is-SWIM post. “I was reading threads sittin in awe at this bad ass motherfucker.”
The internet is older and wiser now, or at least some of its denizens are. Elders of drug forums try in vain to stop noobs from using the acronym. “We frown upon the use of SWIM,” says a post from an administrator of Bluelight, another large drug forum. It’s not hard to figure out that the appellation is a feeble legal defense—“As I clearly stated in the post, your honor, that was not me, but someone who is not me”—and its usage tends to produce sentences that vary tenses to the point of unreadability.
But there is something beautiful about calling yourself SWIM. It turns the solitary experience of a psychoactive drug into a collective identity—what Sigmund Freud called the “oceanic feeling.” We are all SWIM, but none of us is SWIM, because SWIM isn’t us. Syntactical contortions aside, making SWIM into the protagonist of your trip may result in a more accurate travelogue. At some point, you may have been someone who isn’t you.
It was in 2005, my freshman year of college, that I took my first Ambien. I sat in my pajamas in a common room in my dorm, staring at the ceiling. The pattern on the ceiling tiles was moving, like ripples in a stream. I was overjoyed. A girl I had a bit of a thing for was sitting across the room, and I decided to walk over and convey my sense of ecstasy to her. I fell off my chair. To my dismay, instead of being happy for me, she reacted with a patronizing chuckle. I left Buzzkill City and returned to my room, where I went to watch the ceiling dancing from my bed.
Sophomore year, I lived in an apartment off campus. These were the frontier days of the internet, and my friend Jack had discovered a service that provided medical prescriptions online, filling them through the mail in abundant quantities. Jack’s online doctor had a name like a conquistador, which none of us can remember exactly, but which we know included the syllables “de la” in the middle. Ambien flowed like wine. When, eventually, we all got a grip on ourselves and Jack failed to renew his prescriptions with by-then-characteristic promptness, Dr. Conquistador called him up to remind him to order more.
That year, I was trying for the first time in my life to keep a journal. I typed the entries into a Microsoft Word document on my computer—surely a violation of the most sacred tenet of diaristic etiquette, but my handwriting is unreadable even to me. The entries I wrote were dreadfully dull. I emoted over a bad haircut, assumed I had invented ontology, expounded on the erroneous opinion that Steely Dan is not a good band. I was 19.
It wasn’t until the next year that I made a discovery. Reviewing my entries in a fit of short-term nostalgia, I found I had been keeping another journal in parallel. Under the influence of Ambien, I had become a prolific author, recording my thoughts in detail before forgetting them completely the following morning. There were a dozen or so pages hiding in the document, and I had no memory of writing a word of it.
I had found SWIM’s personal diary.
The first thing I always notice, after the mild cottonmouth that serves as the universal announcement of a chemical taking effect on the body, is that I’m not alone. I don’t mean that I start to feel a more intimate bond with the people nearby—there’s usually no one around. I mean that I feel as though others are there who are not there. Sometimes they speak to me, but mostly they speak to each other.
Am I saying that I hear voices in my head? I realize that this is generally considered the most basic sign of psychosis. David Berkowitz, the serial killer known as the Son of Sam, claimed he heard a voice—in his case, like some of our drug forum users, that of a literate dog. It told him to murder couples in public places during the summer of 1976, and he obliged.
My case is less extreme. The voices speak to me only when roused by zolpidem tartrate, the active chemical in Ambien. Introduced to the market in the late 1980s as a substitute for the addictive benzodiazepine Halcion, Ambien is now the most commonly prescribed sleeping pill in America—according to the most recent data, 43.8 million prescriptions were filled in the year 2012. But as many an insomniac has discovered by now, Ambien doesn’t quite knock you out. What it does do is give you a choice. If you choose to sleep, you’ll find it easier to nod off than if you hadn’t taken it. But you can also choose not to, and that’s where things get interesting.
Since this is an off-label use of the drug, the most substantial research on its effects has been conducted by forum users. A Reddit thread started by user whatwhatwhat82 called “I hear voices talking in my head when I’m high on ambien?” describes the experience:
Probably the “weirdest” thing that happens is I hear people talking in my head. It’s very hard to describe. I don’t hear them out loud, but I hear conversations of people talking about random things. When I decide to actually fall asleep, I hear the conversations all in my head like I’m already dreaming, but I completely know I’m awake. I also know the people aren’t really there. It isn’t like they are talking to me either, they are just talking to each other. I’ll try to explain it better if anyone wants me to.
In the ensuing thread, eskimozach assures whatwhatwhat82 that this is “quite norm.” Wintergirl13 says that “a friend” has reported the same phenomenon, which he has named “the third person.” “When I am with him and we leave rooms,” she says, “he always turns and expects there to be a third person with us.”
It’s hard to tell whether wintergirl13’s friend is a real friend, or everybody’s best friend SWIM. It’s possible that between the user, the pill, and the forum, two other people were born.
But the lifespan of the third person is short. Ambien causes anterograde amnesia, inhibiting the development of memories after it takes effect. Still, you don’t completely black out. The drug expands those few lost minutes just before you fall asleep, resulting in a period of a couple hours that you may not remember unless someone reminds you. Or, worst-case scenario, you read about it in the news the next day.
Of course, in spite of the overlap, different people respond to drugs in different ways. I have never understood why someone would willingly smoke pot unless they were neurotic enough to prefer a private panic attack to a moment of public awkwardness. In my youth, I made this mistake many times before learning the hard way I had to avoid the stuff. But the effect of Ambien, for me, is a miracle—a euphoria like no other substance can produce.
What it’s supposed to do, according to the squares at Big Pharma, is put you to sleep. Getting to sleep is the result of a cellular relay race across the synapses in our brains, run by chemicals called neurotransmitters. There are two kinds of transmitters, excitatory and inhibitory; gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is the main inhibitor. The zolpidem tartrate in Ambien coaxes the brain into letting more GABA through the door, and it proceeds to bind with receptors in our membranes. Once in, it asks the parts of the brain that keep us awake to chill out already and stop doing whatever it is they’re doing. The result is that the central nervous system winds down and gets ready to hit the sack.
But knowing what happens at the chemical level doesn’t translate to knowing what is happening in a person’s mind. Ambien, like most psychiatric drugs, is not fully understood, but it shares a significant component of its chemical structure with LSD. The effect is what one Erowid user calls “dreaming awake,” a mélange of dissociation, hallucination, and flights of imagination. My personal theory is that what the drug is treating is not insomnia, but repression. Since, as you might have gathered, the neurotic in the above paragraph is me, I find alleviating this condition a great relief.
This is not to say that Ambien turns its user into a neanderthal, reduced to unmediated id. Repression, after all, doesn’t just consist of hiding emotions and erections. As much as he opposed the sexual restrictiveness of his day, Freud posited repression as an inevitable consequence of living among others. It wasn’t simply that we held everything in, but that there were things that couldn’t find their way out. Our tools for expression—language, art, sex—could only accomplish so much. This, in contrast to the pleasure principle of personal desire, is the reality principle.
Freud claimed that it’s when we sleep that we find respite from repression, by unleashing our repressed thoughts in the shape of dreams. He called dreams the “royal road to the unconscious” and contended that interpreting them allowed us to figure out what was on our minds that we weren’t aware of. But the state described by whatwhatwhat82—“like I’m already dreaming, but I completely know I’m awake”—suggests an interchange where the unconscious merges with the ego. A waking brain on Ambien is no longer in the dark, illuminating its own deepest reaches by processing reality through the prism of dream logic.
It was Freud’s most faithful and yet most iconoclastic disciple, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who unearthed a critical feature of the unconscious. He defined it as “the discourse of the other.” It is the SWIM inside us: the voices of parents and friends, of social convention, of inherited desires. “The unconscious is structured like a language,” Lacan said, and it is our particular way of using language, including errors and ambiguities, that illuminates our relationship to the world around us.
Dreams are the inaccessible ideal. The patient in analysis is called on to free associate, to let the mind wander as freely as it does during the deepest stage of sleep. In a 1936 paper called “Beyond the ‘Reality Principle,’ ” Lacan explained the place of the analyst in facilitating this process. The analyst assumes the position of a conversational interlocutor, but “patiently refuses to play this role,” instead sitting in pointed silence. This violation of ordinary interaction causes a crisis:
Is there not a threshold at which such an attitude must bring the subject’s monologue to a halt? If the subject continues, it is by virtue of the law of analytic experience; but is he still addressing the listener who is truly present or is he instead addressing some other now, someone who is imaginary but realer still: the phantom of a memory, witness of his solitude, statue of his duty, or messenger of his fate?
There is a third person in the room. This is a phenomenon Freud called transference, the cornerstone of the psychoanalytic method. Ambien seems to make this ghostly presence felt; it brings something into being, rather than just inhibiting our consciousness. The activation of GABA receptors may accurately describe the process that puts us to sleep, but it remains an inadequate explanation of what we experience—both in dreams and on drugs.
A medical study says that only 5 percent of Ambien users are fortunate enough to experience what it calls “zolpidem-induced somnambulism and amnesic sleep-related behavioral problems.” Given the proliferation of anecdotal evidence about Ambien’s psychotropic effects, that number is surprisingly small. It’s still unclear what yields results showing such a strange experience for a minority and no experience for everyone else. Do you have to be a neurotic to enjoy Ambien? Or are most people just too desperate to get to sleep to see what happens next? I have no idea, and neither, I think, does medical science.
In contrast to the dreary journal I had kept in the light of day, SWIM’s nighttime journal was poetry. The first entry, written on the night of October 25, 2006, set the scene:
Inside shuja’s mind
Blackness pyramid men in blue and orag nge cloaksthey worship a dome from their panopticon=esque structure
I no longer know who the cloaked figures inhabiting my brain were, but the sense of ceremony is fitting. Inside my mind, a civilization was coming into being.
Another entry seemed to deal with the problem of expression through language, by remarking on a different function of the mouth:
Swallowing is a curious activity, in that it allows the entry of another organism into the formerly safe international zone. Within this zone, war inevitably ensues. Unfortunately this stimulates the economy and cannot be dispensed with. Last night I swallowed my words. These were much harder to digest then I had expected, particularly the letter “g.” Yet another problem for which cranberry juice presents a solution.
Don’t ask me why I was drinking cranberry juice. You get some strange nutritional advice on drug forums.
I must confess to finding this political parable rather elegant:
There are several reasons dots are projected to win the election over lines. Dots, while small, have made the credible complaint that linear paradigms are more likely to lead to answers. Lines, on the other hand, accuse the dots of being TOO small. Who knows where this may lead.
The most consistent aspect of these writings is structure. This was not a stream of consciousness, but a canal, bearing the mark of human intervention. Within it was an aphorism:
This sounds not like an orgasm, but a man who just can’t get to one.
Is it better to say what you think, or to think what you say?
To see what you believe, or to believe what you see?
To spray when I stink, or stink when I spray?
Ingredients for Chutney:
Franfurter (sealed for posterity)
Georgia O’Keefe vegetables
Minty Fresh Gelatin
Salt and Pepper
Marinade and stir. Do not eat.
And a song:
“Rainin’ on my Baby” by Walter “Mudbone” Pater
Rhymes rhymes rhymes rhymes
Get ready for the hold up
You can’t live on surplus
No matter how little sense it made, each fragment tended to belong to an identifiable genre. Like Noam Chomsky’s famous illustration of universal grammar, the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” most entries are correct in some way, even as they are ultimately absurd.
That same year, a new literary genre was being born. Twitter had launched in March. I started tweeting a couple years later, in 2008. “I find one learns lessons in the course of life,” Elon Musk said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, “and one lesson I’ve learned is, don’t tweet on Ambien.” For someone like Roseanne Barr, whose interior life is best kept there, he may be right. For the rest of us, Musk is wrong. Tweeting is the best thing to do on Ambien. Where else can you find a captive audience of second and third persons to whom you can broadcast your dream-logical propositions? (The tweet, incidentally, that Musk regretted was from the summer of 2017: “A little red wine, vintage record, some Ambien . . . and magic!” In the fall of 2017, the engine of SpaceX’s Merlin rocket exploded at the company’s facility in McGregor, Texas. No connection has been proven.)
I first attempted Ambien tweeting on the night of September 21, 2009. I began at 11:25 p.m., with what appears to be a self-reflexive examination of my own status as author. “People who concentrate right now,” the tweet read. Over the course of the following hour and four minutes, I covered a wide range of topics. “Animals pursued by military march,” began the most substantial installment, continuing, “GO GO GO GO GO. Heavenly intervention is all that can save us now.”
I went on to address matters like architecture (“public space/private space”), history (“ ‘Damn sure, in 1999’ ”), religion (“found supreme organism. has answers, no translator through”), terrorism (“19 piles of anthrax”), human cruelty (“betrayal”), and so on. I concluded at 12:29 a.m. with a wry observation: “ ‘Same struggle.’ ” I put some of these statements between quotation marks, for reasons lost to the sands of time. On the morning of September 22, I noticed I had lost several followers.
The internet may be new, but writing on drugs is certainly not. Opium, often taken in the form of the aromatic tincture laudanum, was beloved by the Romantic poets; Baudelaire and Jarry courted the “green muse” of absinthe, while alcohol’s role in literary history is too voluminous to trace. In 1924, André Breton put forth a theory of literary drug use, drawing from the new discipline of psychoanalysis. He wrote in the first issue of La Révolution surréaliste, the official periodical of French surrealism, that the movement was “the crossroads of the enchantments provided by sleep, alcohol, tobacco, ether, opium.” Surrealist art set out to achieve what Breton called “psychic automatism,” aspiring to the condition of free association identified by Freud, whether it took poetry, painting, or psychoactive drugs to get there. The goal was nothing less than bringing the unconscious mind to the surface.
Zolpidem tartrate didn’t exist until 1978, and no major surrealist lived to try it. But it has shown a strange promise in excavating the unconscious, at a level beyond the production of weird poetry. Somehow, a medicine universally prescribed and used as a sleeping pill also seems to wake people up when nothing else can. This paradox was discovered in 1999 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Five years earlier, Sienie Engelbrecht’s son, Louis Viljoen, had fallen into a coma after being hit by a truck. He remained in a persistent vegetative state, expected never to recover. To alleviate involuntary muscle spasms, his doctor prescribed him Ambien. Engelbrecht administered the drug, crushed up and mixed into a soda, and 25 minutes later, Viljoen looked over at her and said, “Hello, Mummy.”
In a case study from 2004, a woman had suffered chronic aphasia—the inability to speak or understand language—for three years following a stroke. She was prescribed Ambien for unrelated symptoms of sleeplessness. “To the amazement of the patient and her family,” said a report in the New England Journal of Medicine, “ingestion of the first dose was followed by a dramatic improvement in her speech, which persisted until the patient went to bed later in the night.”
Though the evidence is still mostly anecdotal (a 2017 review of clinical trials was mostly inconclusive), Ambien has continued to show these contradictory effects. It’s hard to resist drawing a conclusion that wouldn’t pass muster at any medical journal: it’s as though what brings these patients back to life is access to the unconscious. It’s a single drug that can make you fall asleep, wake up, or lose your mind—depending on who you are. And I can’t help but think that the momentary liberation from repression Ambien has provided me tells me something about who I am.
Anyone who has ever lain on an analyst’s couch knows that free association is hard work. In a censorious, inhibited society, it goes against deep-seated reflexes. There are ways to overcome these obstacles—undergoing analysis, making art, improving relationships—but they are difficult. As Lou Reed said, in the Velvet Underground’s “Some Kinda Love”: “Between thought and expression lies a lifetime.”
The effects of Ambien, like those of most drugs, are dismayingly temporary, perhaps more than usual. The experience is short lived and quickly forgotten. At best, I can credit it with offering a fleeting glimpse, from a distance, of a better way of living—one that might require not just a different self, but a different world to achieve.
I wrote the final entry of my unconscious journal on March 6, 2007, going through the usual itemized lists and rhyming couplets, before concluding:
SILENCE IS FATAL
BUT ALWAYS INCOMPL