Reading Rainbow played on the TV on the stand in front of us and all the after-care kids sat at the surrounding library tables, chattering and laughing and barely paying attention to the TV.

A girl named Amber, who washed her hands so much her skin was always dry even in the Florida humidity, began to talk about her religion.

We were eight. I’d been to church two times in my life and both times I’d been taken away for a dumbed down version of “kid church” where we played games that had almost nothing to do with God or the Bible.

I had decided, given the circumstances of my young life, that if God indeed did exist, he’d punished me with a terrible life. My father hit me, always drunk or high, and my mother ignored me. The only person who paid me any attention was my older sister and even she bullied me. God was not looking out for me. And since I could not imagine that a God so cruel could exist, I did not believe. It didn’t feel like anything or anyone was looking out for me.

But Amber seemed so excited about it. She talked about how God had a plan for everyone and how He had it all laid out for us, like a winding pathway we were meant to trod. I was fascinated, caught up in the love behind her words, for it confused me to no end. I’d heard adults speak like this, but someone my own age had never proselytized to me.

That night, I went home and wrote in my purple velvet-covered Harry Potter diary. I couldn’t spell very well, but I knew how to express myself. I wrote about how I wanted to believe in God and become a Christian, to be a good person for others to look up to.

But as I closed the book, I heard the noises from outside my door of my dad and my stepmom fighting. It got louder and louder until pots and pans began to be thrown, the screaming overriding everything. So I got on my knees and prayed.

And prayed.

And prayed.

Nothing happened. Not then, not after that. Nothing got better.

God was not looking out for me. So I guessed He did not exist.

I was not meant to be a Christian. I don’t think I belong in organized religion as it is — for me, my beliefs are very much predicated on experience, and not many seem to rely much on that besides Buddhism.

I was a smart kid — I realized if God didn’t exist, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny didn’t either, and that adults were lying and there was absolutely no magic in the world.

I clung onto hope for magic long after I’d given up on God though, writing little rhymes that would turn me into a grown-up or whisk me away on my great adventure. I may not have believed it would work, but I was convinced that my “adventure” would start in the midst of all this terror.

It was clear to me, given all the books I’d read, that kids with hard lives are usually the protagonists of stories and found some way to redeem themselves. But I had to let go of that, too, eventually. Magic did not exist, at least not in the forms I was looking for it.

I suppose I’ve always been looking for redemption.

I wasn’t raised to be a good person by most accounts — I was taught to bully my way through anything I can and to make myself the victim of everything else that wouldn’t go my way.

These are not two ideals that are great to raise a child on. So I read books, gleaning what I could of goodness and kindness from there. It was in a book I first read about the power of friendship and realized I already had that — friends who were closer to me than my family.

So I took cues from them too, looking for some glance of goodness in this stunted and dysfunctional world, and learned to treat others well, sometimes even better than myself; I learned to be generous, if I could, ensure that everyone was able to have a good time; I learned that sometimes discussion doesn’t mean argument; I learned that passion is more important than realism; I learned that everyone in the world is fighting their own unwinnable battle.

In our own ways, we are all the kid under the stairs, dreaming of magic, hoping for some kind of escape.

As I grew older, I grew harder. Under the regime of my father, who was simultaneously drunk and high for four-fifths of my life, I learned that being the loudest and the most violent was the way to ensure people listened to you.

It has played out on a national scale with the presidential election in 2016 — as long as you’re loud, you’ll win. But I didn’t want to give into that, to bully my way through life. I wanted to create my own saga, my own legacy that the world would look kindly upon after I died. So I threw myself into writing. Words cradled me, comforted me when no living human could. At least books would never get angry at me and end our friendship. We’d be together forever.

I was a good kid in high school — I had really good grades, great test scores, an after-school job, and I participated in the track and cross country teams my last two years, becoming the captain of the cross country team in my senior year. It was no wonder I got into Florida State without even submitting an essay — my hard work spoke for itself.

That’s where I met Maddie*. We’d gone to high school together but had never really become friends, even though we hung out with the same people and even shared a few classes together. I was sophomore in college when we drove back up to school together after spring break and she introduced me to the Grateful Dead. The rain splattered softly against the truck windows as she played “Crazy Fingers” and I fell asleep to its entrancing sound, the lullaby of the melody like a warm hug of psychedelia.

When I awoke, Maddie asked me if I liked it and invited me to go a music festival with her a week or so from then, where Furthur, the remaining members of the Dead, would be playing along with the Allman Brothers and a ton of other classic rock legends. I agreed immediately, using the leftover of my loan money to purchase myself a ticket.

I had another plan in mind — the Dead sounded cool and all, but I knew that I could find myself some LSD at a Dead show. It’s like finding lumber in a forest or a fish in the ocean.

I didn’t know much about the Dead but my harried drug researching some years earlier had turned up a story on a forum called the Shroomery of a man who did a “thumbprint” — a huge dose of LSD that pretty much changes the structure of your brain — and I’d been interested in both LSD and the Grateful Dead ever since. I always assumed the music would be intense and overwhelming but instead, it was like a gentle assault on my senses, incomprehensible jams clashing together to create beauty and chaos in equal parts.

The festival was held in the woods about an hour away from my college in a beautiful park set upon the Suwannee river. Spanish moss dripped down from the live oak trees that dappled the property with their cover, creating shade from the harsh Florida springtime sun. I’d never camped before, so Maddie arranged for me to share a tent with her friend, a girl with beautiful curling auburn hair and a body like an ancient goddess. The second day of the festival is when Furthur was set to play, so we procured ourselves some party favors courtesy of our giant pigtailed friend and set off the venue.

There’s a photograph of me with my purse tangled in my necklace, a huge grin on my face, that was taken on our walk to the show. There’s a hidden secret in that picture: a dose of LSD underneath my tongue. The first I’d ever taken.

Lil ol’ Sam.

It has been quite a few years and many trips since, but I still remember it vividly: the confusion that hit my middle first, like a bundle of butterflies being unleashed all at once, and the music flooding my senses, an assault of beauty and chaos that overwhelmed me with joy. I began to dance as I’d never danced before, not even on that beautiful day when I was thirteen, when I danced in public for the first time. It was as if I was a node of the music, just another piece of it given life and movement, and I shook my body in time to those drums, those guitars, those keys. I danced like a woman possessed.

A man with long dreadlocks tried to talk to me, but I was too far into the feeling flooding through me and the colors sliding past me to answer back in any coherent way. All I choked out was “first time” and he smiled knowingly. He bowed his head and pulled a string of coral-colored beads over his neck, then handed them to me.

“For luck,” he said, winking. I pulled the necklace over my head and nodded my thanks, a returning grin on my own face.

That was when it happened, in the cradle of that kindness and beauty offered to me by a total stranger. As the music played, carrying me further and further from the person I’d been at the beginning of this day, an epiphany began to flood me with its effervescent light. It was so simple that I would’ve laughed if I wasn’t so far into my own self that I’d lost sight of the world:

I hate myself.

It seemed so absurd in that moment. How could I hate such a strange and wonderful person as I’d turned out to be? I knew I wasn’t the worst human that had ever lived — I’d tried hard to rise past my upbringing and be a better person for it. That was more than I could say for most people.

The rest of the night is a blur in my mind, only those two moments standing out. That’s the annoying thing about LSD — if you go far out, your memory of it will be foggy the next day, after sleep and normalcy has finally claimed you again.

But I was changed, after that weekend, recollection or no. There was magic in the world, as I’d believed when I was a child. It was just in a much different place than I’d ever thought it would be: music festivals.

Over the next few years, I went to over a dozen music festivals, searching for that same feeling. But it wasn’t festivals or even the LSD that had brought me magic — it was falling in love with myself. It was believing that I did not need to be “redeemed”, but need only fall into place with the world as it was and my own particular part in it. It was seeing the beauty in even the smallest, simplest things, like a stranger handing you a necklace or a delicious morsel of food. There was magic in those things, if you looked.

After my first experience, it wasn’t hard for me to let go of my atheism.

I’d questioned it for a long time, hoping I’d find something more alluring and exciting out there but science and nothingness.

But after that first experience and the many that followed, I knew that I was not alone in this universe, celestially.

Maybe God wasn’t a magic man in the sky making you read his book — maybe it was the beauty of nature, the beauty of the tiny little details that made up the seemingly endless patterns that profligate our world.

Or perhaps it was the beauty of friendship, which allowed me to first recognize the toxicity of my own self and then rise past it into the realm of care and kindness.

Or perhaps it was just that feeling, that simple feeling, of realization that could change your life in an instant.

Or perhaps God is all of these things, rolled into one.

Nowadays, I’m still not what you could call religious. I pray when things are hard and when I’m grateful, but not to some man — I pray to the Universe, which has taken me by the hand and led me on this journey towards knowledge and growth, keeping me safe all the way.

And sometimes I feel an answer, rising up beneath my skin in goosebumps or rolling through my brain like a stray thought, and I sink into that feeling: of being heard and being answered by God and knowing, despite all of the pain, I am not alone.

*name is changed

Essays about mental health, productivity, and living life in our own unique ways.

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