Last month, I travelled to Bristol to meet 37-year-old Heather Perry, one of a very small number of people to have voluntarily undergone trepanation for non-medical reasons. As we ate a pub lunch, I asked Heather about her experience. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
M: How did you first hear about trepanation, and why did you decide to have it done?
HP: The first time I heard about trepanation was when I was a kiddie. I was really into Bob Dylan and John Lennon, and I remembered that Lennon had mentioned that he wanted it done. He had spoken to Bart Huges about it, and Bart had said that he didn’t think Lennon’s cranial sutures had healed anyway, because he was such a creative person. At the time, I just thought “Wow! That’s a bit freaky” and didn’t think much more about it. Then later on, I did a lot of acid, which kind of mashed my head up a bit. I remember getting these pressure or tension headaches, and thinking that John Lennon said he was going to do it to relieve the pressure. By the mid-nineties, I started to realize that it wasn’t dangerous, and decided that I was going to it if I could find somebody to give me a hand. But that proved to be quite difficult, so then I let it drop for a while. One of my initial reasons for wanting to have it done was for more mental energy and clarity. I had been working in Cheltenham, and got made redundant. I bought a computer, got online, and eventually got in touch with Pete Halvorson in the States, who had trepanned himself in the early 1970s. I was going over for a wedding anyway, so we arranged to meet so he could help me with it.
M: Didn’t Bart Huges decide to trepan himself after taking acid, because he believed that trepanation was the next step in expanding his consciousness?
HP: Yeah…certainly the first self-trepanners in the 60s and 70s – they all knew Bart – and me, we’d all done a lot of acid. I once found a website that theorized that taking too much acid encouraged people to trepan, which is just ridiculous. I just think that the kind of people who take acid are more experimental, so might be more likely to try that kind of thing if they’re really into consciousness expansion. I never thought “Why don’t I trepan myself?” while I was tripping. But actually, Amanda Fielding was tripping when she first did hers. She knows Pete, and had her first trepanation around the same time as Pete, in the early 70s. She paid a doctor to do it back then, and found another to re-do it a few years ago because the bone had grown back. I spoke to her on the phone just after I was trepanned. Bart’s theory about trepanation wasn’t as a result of a ‘trip’ though, he’d studied medicine.
M: So do you subscribe to Huges’ theory that trepanation can lead to a higher level of consciousness by increasing the blood brain volume?
HP: Yes and no. It certainly does initially when you’re trepanned. In fact, Pete now has doctors down in Mexico who will do the operation, and they take MRI scans pre- and post-trepanation. After the operation the ratio of brain blood volume to cerebrospinal fluid is increased. I’m not sure if that’s true for everyone. Maybe it depends on the size of the hole. It’s probably variable from person to person, depending on the person’s unique physiology, and on whether the bone grows back. What Huges was saying was that it allows the heart beat to pulsate through the brain better. Funnily enough, I know a woman with an autistic son. Autistics have trouble with empathy don’t they? When I told her about my trepanation, she said her son had hit himself on the head with a hammer and fractured his skull when he was younger, and that afterwards he was noticeably more empathetic. He stayed like that until the wound healed, so I guess the blood was moving to that part of the brain to heal it. Because she’d noticed that it had an effect on her son, she didn’t think that I was barking mad. There have been a few other cases of people who have been accidentally trepanned and reported similar kinds of effects.
M: How exactly did you perform the trepanation?
HP: I used a hand trepan initially, but that wasn’t proving to be terribly successful. Then there was a problem with the people who owned the property we were staying in, so we decided we’d have to just leave it. I wrapped my head up in a towel and we got out of there. A couple of days later, we had another go. We abandoned the hand trepan and got an electric drill instead. I injected myself with a local anaesthetic and then slashed a big T-shaped incision in my scalp, right down to the bone. I was sat there in the bathroom feeling quite relaxed and they started with the drill. It didn’t take that long at all, probably about 20 minutes. Eventually I could feel a lot of fluid moving around. Apparently, there was a bit too much fluid shifting around, because they’d gone a little bit too far and I was leaking some through the hole, but this wasn’t especially dangerous as there are three layer of meninges before you get to the brain.
M: How did you feel immediately afterwards? Even though you didn’t do the trepanation specifically to treat your depression and chronic fatigue, was there any improvement in your condition?
HP: Something definitely happened after the operation. There was a shifting around of fluids, and I felt an intense sense of peace and relaxation. It was a little bit trippy in that nice shiny sort of way. If I were to compare it to drugs it would be like acid mixed with some kind of opiate. It certainly seemed to help with mental clarity and overall well-being, and I remember that feeling lasting for quite a while. Afterwards I reduced my dose of antidepressants for a while. But I don’t think it’s long-lasting, because it’s probably healed over. I don’t know whether that’s because I need a bigger hole or because of my under-active thyroid, which I was diagnosed with just recently. Sometimes, when I’ve been trying different thyroid medications, it kind of feels like I did post-trepanation so I’m wondering if it’s not permanent for me because of my condition. I think we’ll have to wait and see what those doctors Pete now has working on it say about it.
M: So are you thinking of re-opening the hole or making another one?
HP: I don’t know. I mean surely it takes years for the bone to grow back over a half-inch hole, because Amanda’s was smaller than half an inch I think and she’s just had hers redone 30 years later. I’m not sure whether the bone’s grown back over the hole in my skull. It’s hard to tell really, because the skin grows back over it so you can’t see it.
M: Do you advocate trepanation for everyone? Is it a miracle cure that can be used to treat any ailment?
HP: No, it’s not something that I would advocate it for everyone. After all the press stuff I was contacted by various organizations, like the ME [Myalgic Encephalomyelitis] Society, asking me to go and give lectures, and there were people writing to me from all over the world asking me if they should have it done. I’d tell them that they should make their own decisions. It’s just something that I decided to try, to see what it was like, so there’s no reason why I should be counselling them on whether or not they should have it done too. It’s definitely not a miracle cure either. Having said that, I’d be a bad one to ask about the overall long-term effects, because I think my thyroid condition makes it hard to really know. Sometimes when my thyroid meds are working OK, I think I’m feeling the same buzz that I was getting post-trepanation. Maybe for me, whilst the hole was still open, it was enough to kind of boost my brain up to feel that way all the time. My head is a bit of a random one to test it on anyway, particularly as I’d done a bit too much acid to begin with.
M: You say it’s not dangerous, but neurologists say that there is a danger of infection and brain damage. According to the news stories, you had to be rushed to hospital.
HP: Actually, I wasn’t rushed to hospital. We went to see Bill’s doctor, who was a GP but he was into alternative kind of therapies. When he checked me over the following morning he said that we’d pierced the first meninges, but he didn’t seem overly concerned. He told me to eat Jello and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. I had a cough, so I was a bit like a whale – every time I coughed, some fluid would come out of the hole in my head. He gave me some medicine for that and also prescribed me some kind of Chinese herbal remedy. I think maybe we did it in the wrong place because there is an artery there somewhere which is quite close to the surface, so in retrospect maybe we should have done it in a slightly different place. I was aware of the risk of meningitis, but we were taking precautions, and everything was well sterilized in an autoclave. But it shouldn’t be that dangerous really. The trepan I used was tapered, so that it would have been impossible for me to go into the brain.
M: How do you feel about the media coverage of your trepanation? Was it accurate?
HP: The media went mad. Apparently, back in Utah, where I was trepanned, they stared thinking that we had started up a cult, and were showing films in the local schools warning kids about it. It was just a totally hysterical reaction from everybody, especially the media. Pete had got this documentary crew [from the ABC 20/20 programme] because he’s quite interested in promoting trepanation. He’s got his website and he thinks everybody should have it done. The idea at the time was to try and make out that I did more of the operation, so that he wouldn’t get busted. I started it off, then they [Pete and Bill] took over from there. That’s what we wanted to get across in the documentary – that they weren’t in any way imposing it on me. But the people at ABC were absolute bastards, because they set us up. Pete joked, off camera, that we’ll call it a religious practice so that we couldn’t get prosecuted, then the guy repeated that in the programme, which annoyed us a bit.
Back in England, my ex-boyfriend sold the story to the News of the World, and he made it look really, really bad. The story made me look like a real idiot; it was on something like page 30, with the headline “Missing graduate lost in America leaking brain fluid”. We’d talked to a solicitor about trying to stop it, but he said that there was nothing we could do. That story was just complete nonsense too. It completely mis-portrayed the whole thing, trying to make Pete look some a cult leader or something. In fact, I had contacted him, and dragged him into this unnecessary mess that he didn’t need. Afterwards, he got arrested for practising medicine without a licence, and it cost him lots of lawyers’ fees. But then he did encourage the publicity.
I happened to have mentioned to one of the journalists that I had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, and they thought that would make a good headline. It had nothing to do with my chronic fatigue or depression, specifically, but the papers decided to link those things up. The journalists thought it must have been out of desperation. That’s why they reported that I was drilling a hole in my head as a last ditch attempt to feel better. They felt it had to be something really severe to make me do that. But it wasn’t out of any kind of desperation at all. It was basically a consciousness expansion experiment.