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Dropping Acid Helped Cary Grant Face His Past, and Maybe It Could Help Us, Too

Everyone knows people who drop acid are burnout losers, right? But a new documentary about Cary Grant called Becoming Cary Grant reveals the suave star who epitomized perfect masculinity (and without whom George Clooney could not exist), took acid over 100 times. Best part? He did it to deal with his shitty childhood, and said it was better than traditional therapy.

Let’s get one thing super clear: These weren’t weekend acid trips on a yacht while wearing an ascot, but therapeutic psychedelic sessions undertaken to help Grant face the demons of his past, The Guardian reported. The sessions took place later in his career, from 1958 to 1961, at the same time he was making North by Northwest.

As for what those demons were: In short, Grant was born poor and was abandoned as a child by his mother, whom he would later find in an insane asylum. This means that the Cary Grant we all knew and loved actually completely reinvented himself as a sophisticated gentleman, down to the accent, haircut and tailored suits. While he obviously succeeded at this reinvention, his inside never quite matched the outside, so much so that he once reportedly said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

The past catches up with even the most skillful chameleons, and eventually, Grant decided he needed to figure out why he was so shut down emotionally (he was married five times). And LSD helped him do it. The Guardian writes:

“He claimed he was saved by LSD,” explains Mark Kidel, the film’s director. “You have to remember that Cary was a private man. He rarely gave interviews. And yet, after taking acid, he personally contacted Good Housekeeping magazine and said: ‘I want to tell the world about this. It has changed my life. Everyone’s got to take it.’ I’ve also heard that Timothy Leary read this interview, or was told about it, and that his own interest in acid was essentially sparked by Cary Grant.”

Grant called the sessions a “beneficial cleansing,” that “brought him close to happiness,” and resulted, finally, in something like inner peace for him. While Grant’s persona and life are fascinating enough, what really makes this interesting is that this description — beneficial cleansing, close to happiness, inner peace — is actually what recreational acid feels like. (And lots of recreational drugs, too.)

This is not news: Research over the last few decades has found that psychedelics can help treat everything from addiction to anxiety to existential dread. But it bears repeating: This is how everyone who uses recreational drugs has been low-key coping with exactly those issues forever.

It’s sad that we need famous and rich people to make us feel okay about ourselves, but in the case of defending recreational drug use, it’s a worthy trade. Drugs, legal or illegal, can ruin lives, but in the right contexts and quantities, they have the potential to ease people’s suffering. We tend to leave this out of the conversation, because it doesn’t fit our justifications for the legalities or the stigma associated with drug use, especially addiction, as a kind of moral failing. (Nor does it help us convince people to abstain from dangerous drug use or figure out what safe recreational use even looks like—a real problem.)

Studies show we think more negatively of people who use drugs than we do of people with mental illness — presumably because drug use is a choice (though arguably lots of people use drugs because of mental illness). And further surveys of attitudes toward drug use prove that we think differently about the drug user depending on the drug. While we’ve recently “fallen in love with marijuana,” one study found that just 10 percent of people think hard drugs like heroin or cocaine should be legalized, according to Dual Diagnosis, a nonprofit drug counseling website. This makes sense, since they’re highly addictive, though both enjoy their own glamorous reputation as favorites among celebrities and in party culture. (Booze has the most universal support for booze in modern society, but it’s also the fourth leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S.)

It’s complicated. But if we’re all using drugs for (more or less) the same reasons, that should help us move toward a newer, more nuanced understanding of how to proceed. Recent research shows that drug use (addiction or not) has long been misunderstood. Drug use is typically about having a lack of strong connections or sense of groundedness in the world. In one experiment, rats given a “happy” environment but offered drugged water took significantly less of it and weren’t made sick. Rats with nothing else but drugs to satiate them became heavily addicted to them. This is why experts say the opposite of addiction is connection.

Attitudes toward recreational and therapeutic drug use are relaxing, though. There’s evidence of this in the increasing legalization of marijuana, and though it’s likely LSD will never become a substance you can buy at the local drug store (though it’s legal for use in these therapeutic settings), the Grant documentary, and the continued study of therapeutic psychedelics, might still help us expand not just our minds, but our entire understanding of why any of use drugs at all, in any amount. (Hint: to cope with being alive.)

In an interview at Religious News with author Don Lattin, author of Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy, he’s asked what the difference between taking psychedelics therapeutically and recreationally is. Lattin answers:

Well, the first difference between recreational use and the clinical trials now underway into psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is a difference of legality. Taking these drugs for fun is illegal, not to mention dangerous because when you buy psychedelics on the street you are never sure what you are getting. The clinical trials are legal — approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. The purity and the dose are clearly established. Many people in my book are trying to overcome some serious psychological problem, or they are people in ayahuasca churches who are seriously trying to commune with God. Both are in it for the long term and will tell you this was not always a fun or easy experience. But it was cathartic. It was healing. This is not the way most people take psychedelics — many thousands of people take MDMA (ecstasy) every weekend and most have a good time. The difference here is the intention — healing or insight — and that those who take these medicines or sacraments are being guided through the experience and get help to integrate whatever insights they have into their real lives.

That phrase — the difference here is the intention, healing, catharsis, or insight — is key. Isn’t it possible the person who takes drugs for fun, i.e., taking ecstasy on the weekend and just looking for some escape—is also looking for healing and insight? Maybe not from deep trauma, but from a shitty week, a bad life, a boring relationship or a go-nowhere career.

Perhaps it’s on par with the same escapism as television, video games or consumerism; loads of exercise, or constant traveling. Either way, Cary Grant took drugs to be Cary Grant. Maybe that’s reason enough to reconsider what the rest of us our doing with our weekends.