“When society decides that something isn’t possible, it takes extraordinary proof to overcome that bias.”
Ecstasy, the street/colloquial name for the psychoactive chemical methylenedioxyphenethylamine or MDMA, can dramatically accelerate personal change. Read on for a history of this substance, a dose of modern scientific investigation into MDMA and post-traumatic stress disorder, and my personal experiences with it.
Before I go any further, I should note: This post presents a positive bias toward this (currently) illegal substance. I encourage anyone with interest to dig into the issue from multiple angles. As with all ‘unconventional’ personal growth methods, you should apply your own discretion in exploring safe use of MDMA.
Our Society Has Demonized MDMA
In the late 1970s, Sasha Shulgin introduced MDMA to a small group of psychologists who began to use it in clinical practice. They reported incredible progress with patients and pointed at [MDMA’s] ability to reduce fear and “connect the heart and mind.”
Recreational use began at about the same time and by 1981 MDMA was being openly and legally distributed in nightclubs in Texas and was given the moniker “Ecstasy.”
In 1985, as the Reagan administration was ramping up its War on Drugs, MDMA was classified as Schedule I (most dangerous, no medical use) over objections from psychologists and researchers who were working with the substance. Subsequent research into MDMA, supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, focused on demonizing the substance, and some shaky science was produced.
Media jumped on the sensational topic, and Oprah ran a “Ecstasy creates holes in your brain” story. In 2011, they issued a retraction: “although the high-contrast image seemed to be proof positive of MDMA’s powers to turn young minds into Swiss cheese, it in fact merely depicted variations in cerebral blood flow.”
What’s really going on when a substance like MDMA, which, at the very least should be extensively researched by the medical community, is so thoroughly pushed underground?
The Real Reason MDMA Is Illegal
Why our society demonizes consciousness-altering substances is a complex, loaded topic. We don’t fully understand it, but I’ll put forth an interesting theory.
In Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite, psychology professor Robert Kurzban describes the human mind as a series of “modules” that each have competing agendas. So our “hunger” module will come into conflict with our “planning for bikini weather” module, with resulting angst.
He further describes experiments which show that certain modules are processing information unconsciously, then nudging our conscious mind in favor of outcomes that “we” have no idea how we came up with. Instead, we confabulate (awesome word: “fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for loss of memory”) a reason that “makes sense.”
More on the split brain, highlighting experiments by Prof. Michael Gazzinga of University of California, Santa Barbara [via thebrain.mcgill.ca/]:
“Certain experiments that Gazzaniga conducted with split-brain patients also led him to develop the concept of the “left-hemisphere interpreter.” In one of these classic experiments, the split-brain patient had to point with his two hands at pictures of two objects corresponding to two images that he had seen on the divided screen (one with each of his two separated hemispheres). In the test shown here, the patient’s left hand is pointing at the card with a picture of a snow shovel, because the right hemisphere, which controls this hand, has seen the projected image of a winter scene. Meanwhile, his right hand is pointing at the card with a picture of a chicken, because his left hemisphere has seen the image of a chicken’s foot.
“But when the patient is asked to explain why his left hand is pointing at the shovel, his talking hemisphere — the left one — has no access to the information seen by the right, and so instead interprets his behavior by responding that the reason is that you use a shovel to clean out the chicken house! Experiments like this show just how ready the brain is to provide language-based explanations for behavior.”
So what does the modular mind and confabulation have to do with MDMA?
Some people feel very strongly that other adults should be prevented from altering their consciousness with [certain substances]. When asked why these substances should be banned, these are some common answers:
- [They] fry your brain.
- God/Allah/Buddha said so.
- Drug users are freeloaders on society.
But are these answers mere confabulations? Is there a “real” reason behind these stated explanations?
Ethan Nadelmann, in his excellent TED talk, describes how drug use was initially stigmatized and later criminalized in the United States:
“When hundreds of thousands of Chinese started showing up in my country, working hard on the railroads and the mines and then kicking back in the evening just like they had in the old country with a few puffs on that opium pipe, that’s when you saw the first drug prohibition laws in California and Nevada, driven by racist fears of Chinese transforming white women into opium-addicted sex slaves.
“The first cocaine prohibition laws, similarly prompted by racist fears of black men sniffing that white powder and forgetting their proper place in Southern society.
And the first marijuana prohibition laws, all about fears of Mexican migrants in the West and the Southwest.”
What seems to be happening here? The real reason that people don’t want other people to use [certain mind-altering substances] is rooted in racism and in-group/out-group fears. That strong urge arises unconsciously, and our conscious mind confabulates other explanations: [they’re] dangerous, save our kids, [they] make people lazy and unproductive members of society.
Risks And Harm Reduction
Hold up. Whether confabulated or not, shouldn’t we be concerned about brain damage, addiction, and depression; with MDMA or other [substances]?
MDMA has real risks.
One of the most well publicized challenges with MDMA is poor thermoregulation. People have died from overheating, typically in a club environment where they dance and forget to drink water. MDMA also depletes serotonin in the brain. Some people feel depressed a few days after taking MDMA as a result. Frequent or high doses of MDMA have been shown to be neurotoxic in animal studies, and the impact in humans at these levels is unknown.
These risks are often quoted in favor of banning the substance. But almost anything we touch in this world has the potential for harm. Fifteen hundred people died from accidental acetaminophen (Tylenol) overdose from 2001 to 2010. Even drinking excess water can cause death through hyponatremia.
Instead of banning MDMA, a harm reduction model should be considered. Harm reduction aims to give people the knowledge and tools to make wise decisions and limit their exposure to danger if they chose to use. The organization DanceSafe has an excellent, unbiased page on MDMA designed around harm reduction. Harm reduction doesn’t seek to ignore the harm that can occur from [substance] use. DanceSafe discusses dosage, substance testing, research on neurotoxicity and depression, and challenges with thermoregulation.
“We neither condone nor condemn drug use. Rather, we provide a non-judgmental perspective to help support people who use drugs in making informed decisions about their health and safety.” — DanceSafe
MDMA And PTSD
In the last decade, research has been allowed with MDMA in the United States and the results are astounding.
A research study is currently being undertaken pairing MDMA and psychotherapy for the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Preliminary results show that MDMA allows people to revisit trauma without the normal fear. In one study, 83% of subjects who received MDMA-assisted psychotherapy not only no longer met the criteria for PTSD, but they experienced lasting improvements.
The safety of MDMA has also been more rigorously studied. An unbiased review of this work is presented in the book Ecstasy: The Complete Guide: A Comprehensive Look at the Risks and Benefits of MDMA.
Additional work is being planned by the MAPS organization and others to explore MDMA and psychotherapy in social anxiety/autism, anxiety associated with life-threatening illnesses, and depression.
My Personal Experiences With MDMA
In my own experience, it can also be used effectively to accelerate personal growth. For me, MDMA turns up the dial on the precious human emotions of compassion, lovingkindness, and connection to eleven.
As I was coming up on MDMA for the first time, I had a curious experience on the streets of Prague. We walked by a group of homeless people on the street and my friend and I immediately felt that there was something different about the quality of connection. We realized that we had spontaneously looked at their faces, instead of just walking by. We had quietly acknowledged them as fellow human beings and took into our hearts their suffering. I had never experienced these caring emotions so fully, effortlessly, and without boundary or judgement.
I’ve since used MDMA to connect with my partner, deepen relationships with friends, and create astoundingly deep bonds with strangers. MDMA has shown me that it’s possible to relate to the world in a more connected way, and I’m working to move closer to this connectedness in my everyday life.
“The Captain” And “The Claw”
This powerful substance also has a remarkable ability to help us connect more deeply with ourselves. I’ve been able to use MDMA to unlock deep insights about my personality, and have begun to understand where I’m holding myself back.
A particularly valuable insight helped me identify my ‘Captain’ and ‘Claw’. For years I was plagued by a two steps forward, one step back type of progress in life. After a few weeks of eating well, exercising, and working diligently, I would blow up and enter self-destruct mode. Fuck the diet, fuck exercise, fuck work. Eat pizza, watch Lost, mindlessly browse the internet. I could almost set a clock to the oscillation.
On MDMA, a friend encouraged me to explore this topic. He helped me tap into and name the motivations behind these actions. The Captain is the planning side of my brain. With my goals in mind, the Captain creates lists, prioritizes, and then keeps me on task.
Surprisingly, the Claw wasn’t the self-destructive nemesis I’d feared. It’s actually looking out for my freedom — something I’ve valued since my early childhood. A story from my mother illustrates this wonderfully. As a small child, she found me playing with ashes in the fireplace. She told me to stop, and I predictably continued when she turned away. In frustration, she lightly tied my hands behind my back and said, “Now you can’t play with the ashes.” Instead of getting angry, I simply turned around backwards and started playing with the ashes again, with my hands tied behind my back. I proudly said, “I can still do it!”
This Captain/Claw, goal seeking/freedom seeking polarity has been with me forever. When external circumstance or the Captain hems me in too tightly for comfort, the Claw breaks my bonds. The Claw helps me be free.
This insight hasn’t caused the Claw to disappear, but it has given me a useful framework for managing my psychology. Over time, I’ve discovered strategies to strengthen the Captain while honoring the Claw, and I’m more effective at reaching my goals as a result.
MDMA Benefits: Exploring Without Fear
I’d like to close off this post with another story, this time from a close friend. After years of contemplation and preparation, he had a powerful first experience with MDMA. He agreed to share his story. Given the [substance use] policies of his corporate employer, who would have grounds to fire him if they found out, he asked to remain anonymous.
“When [a friend] first approached me to try MDMA, I was reluctant, having avoided anything stronger than marijuana since before college. This was partially out of fear of the unknown and partially out of early childhood experiences with my parents and drug use (funny how we choose to rebel against our parents, even when they are behaving in ways that would traditionally be characterized as rebellious themselves). I had seen how drug use could destroy a family, both mine and others, and didn’t want to risk introducing problems into a really healthy family system that I’ve strived for years to build.
“Even with the reluctance, I was open minded, listened to the stories of self discovery and continued to be curious about the benefits of MDMA until I made a commitment to try it for myself. As I learned through research prior to the experience, set and setting are critical to having a positive outcome with MDMA and I couldn’t have had a better group to surround myself with: good friends, lake side with a fire pit, camping, surrounded by pine trees.
“The experience of being on MDMA was absolutely life changing for me. Parts of my personality that I had consciously built walls around, ostensibly to keep me safe and sane, could be explored without fear of what it might mean and compassion in the understanding that these parts were there for a reason and did great work to keep me safe and ultimately successful in the world. As an example, as we were sitting around the fire, a thunderstorm came up and I could, for the first time, experience my anxiety and simply just ‘be’ with it. Recognize that, yes, I’m often an anxious person and take great pains to plan ahead to avoid worst case scenarios and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. To have this self realization without judgment was a tremendous relief. Outside of the inward looking experience, being able to truly connect with good friends, recognize how fortunate we were, and celebrate this collectively felt like one of the best gifts one could be given in this world.
“What was most amazing was the persistence of these feelings. It’s as if the army corps of engineers dug a few new pathways in my brain to process day to day interactions. The second day after the trip, my wife and I got into a silly argument over something small. In realtime, I could see myself heading down the well worn path of feeling hurt and reacting with anger but was able to stop and say to myself, ‘What is this argument really about? She’s actually stressed about something and I can now *choose* to respond with love and compassion or go down the old path of polarizing patterns that we’ve struggled with for years.’ Amazing stuff.
‘I’ve been in talk therapy for close to 14 years now and that one 6 hour session with MDMA felt more effective than the last 3 years of therapy combined. It was so compelling that I’ve now engaged with a new therapist that specializes in MDMA assisted psychotherapy to see if, with professional guidance, I can really dig deep and go where I’ve avoided going for years relative to self discovery and healing.
“I would encourage anyone who’s mildly interested to read up on the reality of MDMA and choose for themselves how to approach this truly life altering catalyst for change.”
This post was written by a tech entrepreneur and life hacker who builds apps, serves coffee at Burning Man, and practices mindfulness meditation.