And everything turned out to be MDMA, a psychotropic drug known as ecstasy or moths and often used by ravers and music festivals to achieve euphoria, public bliss.
Ecstasy and I only participated together once, after college, in combination with a pot and alcohol to a small effect, and I forgot it. But then I took Michael Polan's "How to Change Our Thoughts," which is a painstaking investigation into the self-discovery of therapeutic applications of psychoactive drugs that alter brain functions such as perception, mood, behavior, and consciousness. Using recent studies at UCLA, Johns Hopkins, New York University, and elsewhere, he writes about how hallucinogens, especially LSD and psilocybin, have had profound results in psychotherapy with suicidal depressive drugs, the terminally ill, addictive and PTSD patients
After reading Polan's book, I was ready to try.
In previous, smaller scale Phase 2 clinical trials for which data are complete, 68 percent of patients were no longer "qualified" to diagnose PTSD after 1
2 months, according to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research (MAPS) , a nonprofit research group that funds the tests and works with the FDA on the program.
I was not eligible for clinical trials (participants should be currently diagnosed with PTSD while I was in acute anxiety). So I turned to a "guide" who provided ecstasy in the pharmaceutical class and would keep my experience after first discussing with me in detail what I hoped to get out of it. My intentions would guide both.
I wanted to relax in fear of a fall in my lungs, and I expected a possible loss of autonomy to a life bound by extra oxygen. I wanted to accept my trajectory for a double lung transplant, burdened by my fear of death and a 50 percent survival rate for five years. Finally, I wanted to try to resolve the lasting grief surrounding the death of my beloved father so that I could trust again and be vulnerable in my relationship.
In an office similar to a womb with pink sofas, reclining chairs, plush carpets and zen music, management told me that the drug would take on as a rising tide and that "what matters to you will emerge. " I took 120 mg of white powder in a huge capsule, the dose calculated to be a little conservative. Not knowing what was coming, I didn't want to push it.
It was a good decision, my first MDMA-led therapy was one of the more intense days of my life.
Gradually, something like a low electric current took over my body, as if every cell was illuminated. Usually quirky, I still became like a stone. My muscles, fascia felt fluid and weightless and I told the driver that I had a sense of safety, confidence and appreciation for my body, which gave me illnesses and orthopedic disasters. Trust in yourself and your body, she said, was the first step in trusting other people.
My breathing felt fuller than any moment I could remember from my diagnosis five years earlier with lymphangioleomyomatosis or LAM. I felt that oxygen filled every cubic millimeter of my damaged lungs, turning them from antagonists into a life-sustaining force. And at that moment, the existential fear that always seemed to me to be a dog was dispelled.
I spoke of death as nothingness, which the manual helped to rethink as a total lack of awareness and therefore absolute peace – a simple psychic change, but a revelation was felt. And when my mind turned to my father, whom I trusted most, my heart swelled as if from his love – and his absence became a presence.
The journey continued for six hours, rising between the second and fourth hours, then submerging in aerated, observational sensation. The management told me that I would be in a "raw state" for the next 72 hours, which registers increased alertness in me as I feverishly scratched my thoughts and epiphanies, pierced by the residual effects of the drug.
Because MDMA can stay in the System for up to a month, the management encouraged me to stay away from the antidepressants I did for longer.
After the predicted, postpartum emotional flood of norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin subsided, anxiety seized me. One month after my trip, in despair, I went to a psychopharmacologist and rejoined a psychologist I had seen in the past. Within a month, SNRI antidepressants and more traditional psychotherapy brought my balance back.
My withdrawal from MDMA-led therapy was significant: I was no longer crippled by anxiety about the progression of my illness or fear of the potential results of treatment After the grief of my father's death was lifted, I could participate in happier, healthier relationships.
But in the beginning I had to get my mental health team involved. I was more careful when planning the next session. Three guided therapy sessions are usually recommended, incrementally at intervals of six to 12 weeks, but because of my SNRI balancing action, I waited nine months for another round – and planned maintenance before and after therapy.
Until then, me and friends were friends, bound by the first shared experience and the next Skype chats. Thinking I knew what to expect, I took the maximum dose of 160 mg, and with the blessing of my psychologist, I hoped to tackle a continuing topic of therapy: a tendency to sabotage my driven, competent, reflective self with postponement, excessive drinking, and impulsiveness.
While the drug was starting, I saw two identical saris in a grassy field playing on a tractor. We pulled hard at both ends of the rope, it broke in half and we both fell to the ground. Even though I was colorful against myself, I couldn't see my face. The management suggested that I approach. I got to my feet, went through the field, circled around in a neat support, and then stopped and saw my blue eyes. Then a hit of insight: Up to this point, I despised not living the conventional life I expected from childhood as a healthy, married woman with children. Clear as day, a resilient, independent, sophisticated woman, I would receive a guarantee of compassion and respect.
Not a quick fix
Like any therapy, MDMA-guided psychotherapy is a process, not a quick fix. But to me, my overwhelming anxiety remains more manageable and my reflex to undermine is less overcoming.
When former firefighter Ed Thompson, whom I met through MAPS, became involved in the MAPS Phase 2 process, he scored the heaviest of all participants on a PTSD-administered clinical physician scale; at the time, he "didn't want to be around anymore." But a year after his third and final MDMA therapy session, Thompson no longer met the diagnostic criteria to be in the study. Thompson said he had gone from "feeling that I was the problem, to realizing my trauma was the problem."
For some participants in the Phase 2 trials, there was no reduction in trauma at all and MAPS researchers have yet to determine why. So far, there is no correlation between the severity of PTSD, the number of therapy sessions, or previous ecstasy experiences. Thompson, however, argues that MDMA-assisted therapy "definitely saved my life and it has been selling for quite a while."
To me, and to many other human injuries, that sounds like progress.