Philip K. Dick’s High Life

By Stephen Bitsoli 10/13/17

None of his drug use seemed necessary to inspire his highly imaginative fiction.

Illustration of Philip K Dick
Though widely known as a psychedelic or drug induced writer, Dick's substance use may have been more of a background to his writing than an influence. Image via Pete Welsch / Wikimedia

Science fiction author Philip K. Dick died a little more than 35 years ago (March 2, 1982) at the age of 53, but he’s still very much alive in the media and the culture. “Phildickian” has even become a word in several online dictionaries, an adjective used to compare things to the shifting realities, paranoia, and nothing-is-as-it-seems trippy nature of his works and his life.

The everything-is-melting ambiance of his fiction explains how this suburban husband and father – five marriages, three children – who was born before the Great Depression built a reputation as a drug user. Some of his writings seemed like LSD visions to the counterculture, but the reputation was not completely warranted.

True, he did experiment with psychedelic drugs, but they weren’t his addiction and had nothing to do with his creative visions. He had a more mundane habit--a need for speed--to help maintain his prolific output and impoverished suburban lifestyle.

A struggling writer for most of his career, Dick’s death came just as he was finding financial success, spurred in part by the upcoming release of Blade Runner, the first feature film specifically adapted from his work. Based on Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott’s film of a dystopic future where rogue androids (replicants) are hunted by bounty hunters (blade runners) was iconic and influential.

A follow-up film, Blade Runner 2049, was on October 6th. It remains to be seen whether it can live up to the expectations of fans of the film or the author.

At least a dozen other films have since been based on Dick’s works – including two titled Total Recall, based on his short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” – as well as television shows, stage plays, graphic novels and an opera. Books by and about him have been coming out nearly every year since his death, including three volumes from the Library of America. He has also inspired or been the subject of fiction and nonfiction, including books – novels, biographies, memoirs – plays, films, a fake Twitter feed (based on “verbatim quotes … paraphrased quotes … and things he really, really could have said at the time, I promise”), and even a robotic simulacrum.

Currently Amazon produces an ongoing television series, The Man in the High Castle, inspired by Dick’s award-winning 1962 novel of an alternate reality where Germany and Japan won World War II and occupy the U.S. Two seasons have been completed, with at least one more projected. Amazon also has picked up Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, a 10-episode series based on some of Dick’s short fiction.

Most of Dick’s science fiction deals with either the fragile nature of reality – sometimes multiple realities – or what it means to be human as opposed to a machine. When a drug is involved, such as the time-protracting Chew-Z from The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or hallucinogenic Substance D in A Scanner Darkly, the experiences could not be regarded as positive or as advocating for their use.

Dick’s reputation as a regular LSD user began with the trippy elements of such novels as Time Out of Joint and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and with fans who thought it romantic to see him as some kind of middle-aged acid head. Perhaps to please them, “I used to talk like I was really into acid,” Dick confessed to Charles Platt in an interview for the book Dream Makers (Berkley, 1980).

Claims that Dick actually habitually used hallucinogens were legitimized by Harlan Ellison in his 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions. In hisintroduction to Dick’s story “Faith of Our Fathers,” Ellison wrote:

“I asked for Phil Dick and got him. A story to be written about, and under the influence of (if possible), LSD. What follows... is the result of such a hallucinogenic journey.… [Dick’s] experiments with LSD and other hallucinogens, plus stimulants of the amphetamine class, have borne such fruit as the story you are about to read.”

In his afterword to the story, Dick is less definite. He does refer to “recent experiences with psychedelic drugs,” and mentions “the theological experience, which so many who have taken LSD have reported,” but doesn’t actually say he wrote the story on acid. He wonders, “What if, through psychedelic drugs, the religious experience becomes commonplace in the life of intellectuals?”

But in a 1976 letter, Dick confessed, “I took LSD only twice,” and that it never inspired his writing, except for “a small passage” in his 1970 novel A Maze of Death. As Dick explained, “you can’t write anything when you’re on acid. I did one page once while on an acid trip, but it was in Latin … and a little tiny bit in Sanskrit, and there’s not much market for that.”

Besides, Dick didn’t even like LSD and the visions it inspired. “It didn’t seem more real than anything else; it just seemed more awful.” In a letter he wrote that “The first time I took LSD I saw the whole landscape freeze over; nothing but snow and rocks, and it lasted for thousands of years.”

Small wonder then that Dick told Platt, “I used to beg people not to take acid.” He says he gave one girl who was considering it a homemade Rorschach test. When he asked her what she saw, Dick recalled, “She said, ‘I see an evil shape coming to kill me.’ I said, ‘You’d be a damned fool to take acid.’ ”

He did take mescaline an unspecified number of times, and other drugs, including antipsychotics, antidepressants, sedatives, hypnotics, muscle relaxants, and stimulants. Of all these drugs, only one was frequent enough to call a habit: amphetamines, and that was mainly to try and amp up his writing productivity and support his family. Most of his books were published as paperback originals, with small advances and no subsequent royalties.

He clearly descended into abuse after his fourth wife left him in the early 1970s. Afterward, according to Kyle Arnold’s biography, he was taking speed by the handful. “He stuffed his refrigerator with thousand-pill jars of amphetamines” and “told his mother he consumed a thousand-pill jar per week.”

(He was probably addicted to women too. At least he was rarely alone – or a bachelor – since he first married in 1948. In Philip K. Dick: The Last Testament [Fragments West/The Valentine Press, 1985], Tessa Dick, his fifth wife, said “We were rarely apart for more than an hour.” And as the title of one posthumously published book suggested, he was obsessed with a succession of dark-haired girls.)

But in 1971 – according to a 1975 interview with Paul Williams for Rolling Stone – Dick learned that he apparently only took amphetamines for psychological reasons. While a patient at Hoover Pavilion, Stanford Hospital for drug rehab, he underwent physical and psychological tests for addiction. Dick says the consensus of four doctors was that he was not physically addicted to amphetamines because the drugs never reached his brain. His liver, they told him, completely detoxified the amphetamines. After one day, he was sent home.

Dick did go to rehab again, but only for three weeks. While in Vancouver, following a 1972 science fiction convention appearance, he attempted suicide with an overdose of potassium bromide, a sedative, and called a suicide hotline. He ended up at X-Kalay, a group one Dick biographer called a “de facto cult.”

Dick later claimed, “I had to lie to get in; I had to pretend I was an addict. … I did a lot of method acting, like almost attacking the staff member interviewing me, so they never doubted that I was an addict.”

Dick himself, while at one time crediting X-Kalay with saving his life – in a letter, while still at X-Kalay, he wrote, “Without them I wouldn’t be alive now” – became disillusioned and used it as the inspiration for the duplicitous New-Path organization (“X-Kalay” means “unknown path”) in his 1977 antidrug novel A Scanner Darkly (filmed in 2006).

In a series of letters collected and published posthumously as The Dark-Haired Girl (Mark V. Ziesing, 1988), Dick said of his time at the X-Kalay rehab that even the staff consisted of ex-user lifers who didn’t leave – not because X-Kalay wouldn’t let them, but because they felt they couldn’t function in the outside world. “They know only the rigid, authoritarian structure of the institution, in which they are either told what to do or tell others.”

He also disliked “the game,” what Arnold in his Dick bio described as “group therapy sessions in which residents traded scathing personal accusations and gleefully attacked each others’ psychological weak points.” Dick recounted one such session in the Dream Makers interview:

“I remember in attack-therapy there was one guy dressed kind of nattily, and he was French. They said, ‘you look like a homosexual.’ Within half an hour they had him convinced that he was a homosexual. … I thought, this is very strange, because I know this guy is not homosexual. And yet he’s crying and admitting to this thing – not to cause the abuse to stop … By confessing to it he didn’t cause them to stop, he caused them to yell louder and say, ‘We were right, we were right.’ He was simply beginning to agree with them.”

If X-Kalay actually helped Dick, it was as psychotherapy, not drug rehab. His years of amphetamine abuse may have caused or exacerbated existing mental illness. Drug abuse and mental illness are often co-morbid, and Dick was at least at times prescribed antipsychotics.

In his final years Dick was obsessed with what he called the 2-3-74 incident, when he says he was struck by a beam of pink light that imparted knowledge to him, though at least at times it seemed to possess him. He wasn’t using drugs at the time (though just before the initial vision, he had taken a powerful painkiller, following the removal of a wisdom tooth), so it didn’t function as a rehab or detox. Still, Dick did credit the incident for some financial success. “I made quite a lot of money very rapidly. We began to get checks for thousands of dollars – money that was owed me.”

At various times he suspected the beam of having come from God, or a Soviet satellite, or aliens. His novels Radio Free Albemuth and VALIS were attempts to fictionalize and deal with the event, as was the massive The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, which was published posthumously. But at times he also accepted that it could have been paranoid schizophrenia or have a physical cause, such as a brain tumor.

In the end he didn’t die of a tumor or a drug overdose, just a garden-variety stroke and heart attack. Maybe his former long-term amphetamines abuse was a contributing factor to that death, but none of his drug use seemed necessary to inspire his highly imaginative fiction.

Stephen Bitsoli writes about the intersection of substance abuse treatment, politics, and related matters for several websites and blogs. A journalist for more than 20 years, and a lifelong avid reader, Stephen loves learning and sharing what he’s learned.

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Stephen Bitsoli writes about the intersection of substance abuse treatment, politics, and related matters for several websites and blogs, including Recovery Warriors. A journalist for more than 20 years, and a lifelong avid reader, Stephen loves learning and sharing what he’s learned. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter.