how I came to drill a hole in my head to get permanently high

"This is the story of how I came to drill a hole in my head to get permanently high."

As far as opening lines to memoirs go, they don't come much more compelling than the first sentence in Joe Mellen's 1970 book, Bore Hole. It tells the story of how he dropped out of the square life in 1963 to become a beatnik—how he took acid in Spain during the psychedelic 60s, before looking for a more profound way to permanently alter his consciousness: auto-trepanation, the act of drilling a hole into your skull.

While this on its own was enough to guarantee Bore Hole cult status, Mellen—who has a fantastically readable and easy style—also managed to capture something of the spirit of the true countercultural 1960s in his writing. This would go some way to explaining why the 500 copies of the book that he originally self-published have long since become sought after artifacts from a vanished age. Bore Hole has been given a luxurious reissue by Strange Attractor, and it has been doubled in length, bringing Mellen's story up to date and making the case for trepanation in the 21st century. The book is also a persuasive attempt to answer a very fundamental question about human nature: Why do we love getting high so much?

Joe Mellen is a well-preserved 76-year-old man, and—just in case you were wondering—seems much sharper and more intelligent than the majority of people I meet on a daily basis, regardless of their age or their proclivity for LSD. I'm not particularly looking for it, but I do notice a large, finger-tip sized indentation on the top of his head after we've been speaking for about an hour. He later reveals that this is the site of an earlier, only partially successful attempt to trepan with a hand tool. The location of his successful trepanation, carried out with an electric drill in 1970, just a few weeks before he wrote his book, is actually at the top of his forehead in a "third eye" brow chakra position. It is, however, completely unnoticeable, and he has to press it with a finger for me to see where it is.

The difference between an autobiography and a memoir is that the former is the story of someone's life, whereas the latter just deals with one specific aspect of his or her history. What memoirs tend to do, in the broadest sense, is to describe a journey. And Joe's journey didn't begin with his first spliff or tab of acid, but with him throwing off the square life that his establishment parents had planned out for him. He has a clear, traditionally British accent, which isn't surprising given both his upbringing and education (he went to both Eton and Oxford). He had a glittering future in his father's firm of stockbrokers all lined up. In fact, he was just a few weeks away from his final post-graduate accountancy exams when he decided to jack it all in. (No doubt helped by the fact that he had just read Aldous Huxley for the first time and In Search of the Miraculous by PD Ouspensky.)

But as soon as he dropped out and started smoking weed, the rest of the pieces started falling quickly into place.

VICE: Were you part of the beatnik generation?
Joe Mellen: Yes, that's what it was pre-acid. But then, during the mid-60s, one began to hear about acid. In '64 I was staying in Torremolinos in Spain. There was a small clique of dope smokers there who listened to jazz. I met this guy Allan Cisco who had been turned on to mescaline by Timothy Leary in Acapulco. He told me about tripping on the beach and wrestling with an octopus in the waves. He had two trips left—and they were big trips, 850mg each. I took one and had this incredible trip. I thought it was amazing, like heaven on earth.

Joe, Amanda Feilding, and Bart Huges

Can you tell me about meeting Bart Huges, the Dutchman who introduced you to both LSD and the concept of trepanation?
I was in Ibiza in '65 and everyone on the scene was talking about acid, but only a few had taken it. I overheard two guys talking about "the future for acid." It turned out that one of them was Bart. I'd heard about this guy who had drilled a hole in his own head, and I thought, 'Well, he must be a nutcase!' It turned out he was just on his way back to Amsterdam, where he had made some acid. He and his friend started off synthesizing mescaline and then moved on to LSD... and it was really good acid.

He asked if I wanted to try some, and when I went over to his apartment he had a big brown paper bag with sugar lumps, and another containing lemons. He told me that I should dip the sugar cube in lemon juice and take them together. The trip was really wonderful.

Was it the full works? Time distortion, hallucinations...
Well, this is the beauty of it. If you don't take the sugar you'll certainly get hallucinations, and you can let it go as far as you want and then take the sugar and bring it back. The funny thing was, I thought I was hallucinating when I got back to my apartment. It looked like the pipes had sprung a leak and like my bedroom was flooded, but I thought I was tripping. Of course, when I woke up the next day, the bedroom was knee-deep in water, and it was real, so I hadn't been hallucinating at all.

The next day I went back round to see Bart, and he gave me a type-written page that was an open letter to a professor of psychiatry in Amsterdam. This scientist had asked Bart to be his assistant before he started taking acid and talking about it in public. In the open letter, he described the mechanism that he had discovered. Basically, it said acid was a vasoconstrictor; the scientist had been carrying out experiments into how acid could be used to slow down bleeding during childbirth, as well as a treatment for respiratory complaints and problems with blood circulation, but he hadn't made any connection to the idea of LSD and expanded consciousness. But this scientist wasn't a genius. He was a good chemist. Bart was a genius. He had a very good memory for everything he had ever learned.

Where does taking sugar lumps come into this?
Consciousness is a product of brain metabolism, which is the oxidation of glucose. Glucose is the only source of energy for the brain. That is the only way the brain works: by burning glucose. So as the oxidation of glucose increases, more and more cells reach that level of consciousness. So suddenly your consciousness is expanded.

In my little book, Bore Hole, there is a big idea, and the big idea is that humans have a problem. The problem is the sealing of the skull, which happens when we are fully grown [between 18 and 21]. Before that, the skull is in separate plates and there is some give. Think of the brain as a pudding: It can expand and pulsate, but once the skull has completely sealed 'round it, it can no longer do that. The pulsation is suppressed and the blood passes through without pulsating. And this is why all of us want to get high. We want to get back to that youthful state of being where we have more spontaneity and more creativity and more life. This is what we miss. It's paradise lost.

The cover of 'Bore Hole'

This brings me onto trepanation. So there is a historical and a pre-historical precedent for drilling a hole in your head, isn't there?
Yes. It's the oldest operation in the world, and it has been done on every continent. They found trepanned skulls in Inca tombs in Peru: 14 skulls all in a row with trepanation holes. This was probably part of the initiation into a priest caste. I suppose the most obvious reason for doing it was to help people who suffered from head wounds. In battle, a warrior could get an axe wound to the head, which in turn could lead to splinters of bone pressing down onto the brain. So you would want to remove the piece of bone. But today trepanation is still used in Kenya. The Gusii and Kuria tribes do it with very primitive instruments. It's a very simple procedure. In surgery, it would be carried out by the nurse, not the surgeon.

I'm not a particularly squeamish person, but I did find parts of the book difficult to read. Do you understand the revulsion or discomfort the subject can cause in some people?
Yeah, of course I do. It's very understandable. When I first heard about it I thought, This is ridiculous! And the idea that someone would do it to himself or herself was absurd. But you get used to ideas eventually, don't you?

Tell me about your first attempt.
I was living back in London, and it was 1967. At that time, I was broke, and I certainly couldn't afford an electric drill, so I bought a hand trepan from a surgical instrument shop. It's a bit like a corkscrew, really, but with a ring of teeth at the bottom. It has a point in the middle, which makes an impression on the skull, and then you turn it until the teeth cut into the skull. It's slightly narrower at the bottom than it is at the top, so it pulls the circular piece of skull out once you're through with it when you pull it out. It was difficult. It was like trying to uncork a bottle of wine from the inside. The trepan was blunt, and I couldn't get any purchase on my own skull. I was tripping on acid. I thought that it was the only way I could get through doing it, but it didn't work...

I have to say, those bits in the book are hard to read... and the fact that you had two more attempts. Trepanning: It's not for everyone, is it?
Well, I think it should be for everyone. The simplest thing is this: The human being needs more blood in its brain. And this isn't a great high; it's just restoring you to that youthful level of vitality. This vitality that you lose when you hit adulthood. But it could just be done with an injection at birth. You could inject the cells round the fontanelle so it never seals. It would be very simple.

Read on Motherboard: I Tried Getting 'High' on Drugless Psychedelic Alternatives in the Suburbs

When did you try for the second time?
Maybe a year later, and I used the same method with the hand trepan. I did remove some skull, but I was unsure as to whether it had gone all the way through or not, as it had gone in at an angle. At first, I thought I'd gone through as there was kind of a "schlurping" sound as I took the trepan out and what sounded like bubbles. I think I went through a tiny bit, but I don't think it was enough.

Can you tell me about your third, successful attempt to trepan?
Yes. This was in 1970. I injected a local anesthetic into the skin, muscle, and membrane above the skull. I ended up with what looked like a pigeon's egg, quite a little lump. I cut through that with a scalpel. The local anesthetic has a lot of adrenaline in it, which is a vasoconstrictor, so minimizes the bleeding. I wasn't high this time. With the hand trepan it took a lot of muscle, but the final time I was using an electric drill with a 6mm bit and that was a lot more straightforward. Unfortunately, the drill cable broke, so I had to stop, wrap a towel around my head, and take the drill to Mr. Lea, a man who had a flat in the basement of my building. He was brilliant—he could fix anything. He didn't ask me what I was doing. So he repaired the drill and then I got back on with it. It's really obvious when you get all the way through the skull. Quite a lot of blood comes out, and the drill bit goes in by an inch. I bandaged it all up. It took two or three days for the skin to heal over the hole. I didn't need any analgesia, and there were no complications; I was very, very careful to sterilize everything. The main danger is infection. I didn't even get a headache. It took half an hour all in all, including clearing up afterwards.

I was feeling great because I'd done it, but then I noticed after about an hour I started to feel a lightness, like a weight had been lifted off me. And then it grew a bit more and a bit more and it ended up being more than I expected. I did it in the evening and went to bed at 11 PM feeling good, and I could still feel it when I woke up the next morning. And then I realized, This is it. It's done.

I've got a mate who wants to get it done—what should he do?
I wish I knew. I heard there's a guy doing it in Mexico for $2,000, and you can get it done in Ecuador and Egypt. There are doctors who will take your money. But we're talking a lot of money here. Bart always thought there should be an automat, a little booth where you go and put your penny in the slot.Related: Watch 'Getting High on HIV Medication'

If people are going to do it themselves, what do you advise?
I don't advise people to do it themselves. I really don't. I had lessons from Bart, and I'm not going to tell other people to do it to themselves. Really, there needs to be some sort of legal and social change in this country for it to happen. I just wish that someone would do some research into drugs that get you high and their properties as vasoconstrictors.

What are the benefits of getting high?
The ego is a mechanism for directing the blood in the brain where it's needed. It constricts the arteries in some parts to increase the blood flow to other parts. But the part of the brain that dominates everything is the speech system. We depend on the speech system for survival and it dominates brain activity. It does this by monopolizing the supply of blood. The speech centers—which deal with talking, writing, reading, and listening—were the last to develop in our evolution, and they're in the cerebral cortex, far away from the heart. To ensure constant blood supply to the speech centers, the ego represses function in other parts of the brain.

People get obsessed with the word chains they use for their identity, and it may be that these word chains identify people as a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew, or whatever. So your particular word chains become very important to you, obviously. And you can resist or even attack other people who have different ideas, whereas there is actually enough room for everyone to have plenty of ideas. This is the beauty of getting high. When you get high you transcend the ego, you get above the ego. When you are high, you can see people operating on this level, and you can see where you have been operating on this level also. You are given an objective view, as opposed to a subjective view. And that is the great beauty and great value of getting high. I think everyone should get high, and I think that Vladimir Putin should drop acid.
The People With Holes In Their Heads

Amanda Feilding lives in a charming flat looking over London's river with her companion, Joey Mellen, and their infant son, Rock. She is a successful painter, and she and Joey have an art gallery in a fashionable street of the King's Road. Another of her talents is for politics. At the last two General Elections she stood for Parliament in Chelsea, more than doubling her vote on the second occasion from 49 to 139. It does not sound much, but the cause for which she stands is unfamiliar and lacks obvious appeal. Feilding and her voters demand that trepanning operations be made freely available on the National Health. Trepanation means cutting a hole in your skull.

The founder of the trepanation movement is a Dutch savant, Dr Bart Hughes. In 1962 he made a discovery which his followers proclaim as the most significant in modern times. One's state and degree of consciousness, he realized, are related to the volume of blood in the brain. According to his theory of evolution, the adoption of an upright stance brought certain benefits to the human race, but it caused the flow of blood through the head to be limited by gravity, thus reducing the range of human consciousness. Certain parts of the brain ceased or reduced their functions while others, particularly those parts relating to speech and reasoning, became emphasized in compensation. One can redress the balance by a number of methods, such as standing on one's head, jumping from a hot bath into a cold one, or the use of drugs; but the wider consciousness thus obtained is only temporary. Bart Hughes shared the common goal of mystics and poets in all ages: he wanted to achieve permanently the higher level of vision, which he associated with an increased volume of blood in the capillaries of the brain.

The higher state of mind he sought was that of childhood. Babies are born with skulls unsealed, and it is not until one is an adult that the bony carapace is formed which completely encloses the membranes surrounding the brain and inhibits their pulsations in repsonse to heart-beats. In consequence, the adult loses touch with the dreams, imagination and intense perceptions of the child. His mental balance becomes upset by egoism and neuroses. To cure these problems, first in himself and then for the whole world, Dr Huges returned his cranium to something like the condition of infancy by cutting out a small disc of bone with an electric drill. Experiencing immediate beneficial effects from this operation, he began preaching to anyone who would listen to the doctrine of trepanation. By liberating his brain from its total imprisonment in his skull, he claimed to have restored its pulsations, increased the volume of blood in it and acquired a more complete, satisfying state of consciousness than grown-up people normally enjoy. The medical and legal authorities reacted to Huges's discovery with horror and rewarded him with a spell in a Dutch lunatic asylum.

Joseph Mellen met Bart Huges in 1965 in Ibiza and quickly became his leading, or rather one and only, disciple. Years later he wrote a book called Bore Hole, the contents of which are summarized in its opening sentence: 'This is the story of how I came to drill a hole in my skullto get permanently high.'

[A few paragraphs that detail Joseph Mellen's early experiments with LSD, and how he finds out about Bart Huges have been removed for brevity.]

The time came when Joey felt he had preached enough and that he now had to act. He did not agree with Holingshead that the third eye was merely a figure of speech, believing in its physical attainment through self-trepanation. Support for this can be found in archaeology. Skulls of ancient people all over the world give evidence that their owners were skillfully trepanned during their lifetimes, and many of these appear to have been of noble or priestly castes. The medical practice of trepanation was continued up to the present century in treatment of madness, the hole in the skull being seen as a way of relieving pressure on the brain or letting out the devils that possessed it. By his scientific explanation of the reasons for the operation, Bart Huges had removed it from the area of superstition, and Joey Mellen proposed to be the second person to perform it on himself in the interest of enlightenment.

Bart had become a close friend of Amanda Feilding, and they went off to Amsterdam together while Joey took care of Amanda's flat. This was the opportunity he had been waiting for to bore a hole in his head.

The most gripping passages in Bore Hole describe his various attempts to complete the operation. They are also extremely gruesome, and those who lack medical curiosity would do well to read no further. Yet to those who might contemplate trepanation for and by themselves, Joey's experiences are a salutary warning. It should be empahasized that neither he, Bart nor Amanda has ever recommended people to follow their example by performing their own operations. For years they have been looking for doctors who would understand their theories and would agree to trepan volunteer patients as a form of therapy Strangely enough, not one member of the medical profession has been converted.

In a surgical store Joey found a trepan instrument, a kind of auger or cork- screw designed to be worked by hand. It was much cheaper and, Joey felt, more sensitive than an electric drill. Its main feature was a metal spike, surrounded by a ring of saw-teeth. The spike was meant to be driven into the skull, holding the trepan steady until the revolving saw made a groove, after which it could be retracted. If all went well, the saw-band should remove a disc of bone and expose the brain.

Joey's first attempt at self-trepanation was a fiasco. He had no previous medical experience, and the needles he had bought for administering a local anaesthetic to the crown of his head proved to be too thin and crumpled up or broke. Next day he obtained some stouted needles, took a tab of LSD to steady his nerves and set to in earnest. First he made an incision to the bone, and then applied the trepan to his bared skull. But the first part of the operation, driving the spike into the bone, was impossible to accomplish. Joey described it as like trying to uncork a bottle from the inside. He realized he needed help and telephoned Bart in Amsterdam, who promised he would come over and assist at the next operation. This plan was frustrated by the Home Office, which listed Dr Huges as an undesirable visitor to Britain and barred his entry.

Amanda agreed to take his place. Soon after her return to London she helped Joey re-open the wound in his head and, by pressing the trepan with all her might against his skull, managed to get the spike to take hold and the saw- teeth to bite. Joey then took over at cranking the saw. Once again he had swallowed some LSD. After a long period of sawing, just as he was about to break through, he suddenly fainted. Amanda called an ambulance and he was taken to hospital, where horrified doctors told him that he was lucky to be alive and that if he had drilled a fraction of an inch further he would have killed himself.

The psychiatrists took a particular interest in his case, and a group of them arranged to examine him. Before this could be done, he had to appear in court on a charge of possessing a small amount of cannabis. The magistrate demanded another psychiatrist's report and demanded him for a week in prison.

There followed a period of embarrassment as the rumour went round London that Joey Mellen had trepanned himself, whereas in fact he had failed to do so. As soon as possible, therefore, he prepared for a third attempt. Proceeding as before, but now with the benefit of experience, he soon found the groove from the previous operation and began to saw through the sliver of bone separating him from enlightenment or, as the doctors had predicted, instant death. What followed is best quoted from Bore Hole.
'After some time there was an ominous sounding schlurp and the sound of bubbling. I drew the trepan out and the gurgling continued. It sounded like air bubbles running under the skull as they were pressed out. I looked at the trepan and there was a bit of bone in it. At last! On closer inspection I saw that the disc of bone was much deeper on one side than on the other. Obviously the trepan had not been straight and had gone through at one point only, then the piece of bone had snapped off and come out. I was reluctant to start drilling again for fear of damaging the brain membranes with the deeper part while I was cutting through the rest or of breaking off a splinter. If only I had an electric drill it would have been so much simpler. Amanda was sure I was through. There seemed no other explanation for the schlurping noises I decided to call it a day. At the time I thought that any hole would do, no matter what size. I bandaged up my head and cleared away the mess.'

There was still doubt in his mind as to whether he had really broken through and, if so, whether the hole was big enough to restore pulsation to his brain. The operation had left him with a feeling of wellbeing, but he realized that it could simply be from relief at having ended it. To put the matter beyond doubt, he decided to bore another hole at a new spot just above the hairline, this time using an electric drill. In the spring of 1970, Amanda was in America and Joey did the operation alone. He applied the drill to his forehead, but after half and hour's work the electric cable burnt out. Once again he was frustrated. An engineer in the flat below him was able to repair the instrument and next day he set out to finish the job. 'This time I was not in any doubt. The drill head went at least an inch deep through the hole. A great gush of blood followed my withdrawal of the drill. In the mirror I could see the blood in the hole rising and falling with the pulsation of the brain.'

The result was all he had hoped for. During the next four hours he felt his spirits rising higher until he reached a state of freedom and serenity which he claims, has been with him ever since.

For some time now he had been sharing a flat with Amanda, and when she came back from America she immediately noticed the change in him. This encouraged her to join him on the mental plane by doing her own trepanation. The operation was carefully recorded. She had obtained a cine-camera, and Joey stood by, filming, as she attacked her head with an electric drill. The film shows her carefully at work, dressed in a blood-spattered white robe. She shaves her head, makes an incision in her head with a scalpel and calmly starts drilling. Blood spurts as she penetrates the skull. She lays aside the drill and with a triumphant smile advances towards Joey and the camera.

Ever since, Joey and Amanda have lived and worked together in harmony. From the business of buying old prints to colour and resell, they have progressed to ownership of the Pigeonhole Gallery and seem reasonably prosperous. They have also started a family. There is nothing apparently abnormal about them, and many of their old friends agree in finding them even more pleasant and contented since their operations. There is plenty of leisure in their lives, mingled with the kind of activities they most enjoy. These of course include talking and writing about trepanation. They have lectured widely in Europe and America to groups of doctors and other interested people, showing the film of Amanda's self-operation, entitled Heartbeat in the Brain. It is generally received with awe, the sight of blood often causing people to faint. At one showing in London a film critic described the audience 'dropping off their seats one by one like ripe plums'. Yet it was not designed to be gruesome. The soundtrack is of soothing music, and the surgical scenes alternate with some delightful motion studies of Amanda's pet pigeon, Birdie, as a symbol of peace and wisdom."
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