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Celebrating the Psychedelic Dawn

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Celebrating the Psychedelic Dawn

Last December I attended the Horizons pre-conference all-day seminar on “Introduction To MDMA Therapy For Clinicians,” with Michael and Annie Mithoefer. Michael has for the past twenty years been one of the psychiatrists most closely associated with research sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) into the use of MDMA to treat PTSD. This is the single most important psychedelic research to date because of its impact on the legalization process of such a substance on the federal level. Not to mention its impact on changing the cultural narrative around all these medicines.

Michael and Annie’s groundbreaking research now means that in less than two year’s time, if all continues to go well, MDMA will become the first Schedule 1 psychedelic to cross the federal approval finish line and become a prescription medication. 

Usually when addressing this topic in public forums, those of us who are health professionals with an awareness of the extraordinary potential for healing that these substances offer will speak in measured tones. We know our audience may include skeptics and even some who are outright hostile to psychedelic-assisted therapy. But there are moments when we find it hard to contain our excitement about what is soon to come. 

On that December day last year, after several hours of presentation and question answering, it was time to wrap up, and Michael asked for any final comments. We who had been sitting calmly and politely all day seemed like we’d had enough of holding back how we actually felt. And the Mithoefers seemed unprepared to hear so many people say what they really thought of them.

One young person after another stood up and spoke, some in tears, of how this couple’s work had given them their life’s purpose, a path that imbues their budding careers with excitement along with the promise of being at the vanguard of a major breakthrough in mental health.

A boomer therapist, voice cracking, thanked the two of them for expediting the use of this tool, one that seems to fast track the course of healing. Their work, he said, has rejuvenated his professional life. He’d been tired and ready to retire. Now he’s inspired and excited to continue on.

Today, as an old boomer myself, I am daring to think that, once again, something wondrous is happening. But do I dare? I was around in Tim Leary’s heyday, and because of prohibition, had to live inside the psychedelic closet for decades. I was there back when my generation’s utopian dreams of a psychedelic dawn threatened to overturn the racist and capitalist power structure. The conservative American establishment and a freaked out public reacted with all the power at its disposal. Within a few short years, they put Nixon in the White House, Leary in the jailhouse, and psychedelics in the outhouse. 

So perhaps I have my own historical PTSD to overcome, because it really is a bit scary to speak out and say it aloud, because I know a backlash could happen again. But sitting in that class at the end, I felt moved to speak the truth that I and so many of us have been afraid to openly and unapologetically declare, yet have known deeply in our hearts from our own lived experience.

What my own heart now would like to declare in regards to just one of these medicines is this: 

Metheylenedioxymethamphetamine, also known as MDMA, has imbued my life, my marriage and my friendships with countless ecstatic, transformative experiences. At age 73, and after as many rolls, it has given me and my wife nothing but joy, fun and freedom.

It’s also a love bomb; a life-enhancing wonder drug that is quietly revolutionizing mental health treatment, subverting consensus reality, and transforming our beliefs about who we are and what we are capable of when you and I skillfully connect. The opportunities are endless, and the change is just beginning!

This is really a revolution, one that’s taking place in our veins, brains, hearts, and default mode networks. To say nothing of our central nervous systems (because MDMA tends to make us more centered and less nervous!)

No, it’s not a panacea for our emotional and psychological ills, but let’s face it — no other medicine comes as close to being one.

People getting their lives back; decades-long, crippling, and at times lethal Post Traumatic Stress Disorder evaporating within a few months; couples on the brink of extinction given a reprieve and a reset (divorce attorneys be advised); socially anxious and autistic people discovering a new dimension to their existence; substance addicted folks being read their emancipation proclamation; old communities, and people, rejuvenated. Grief, healed.

MAPS founder Rick Doblin speaks of MDMA’s potential to treat an even wider range of conditions. These include eating disorders; phobias; physical pain; postpartum depression; end of life anxiety; schizophrenia; dissociation; as well as healing and reconciliation between feuding parties and peoples. It’s even the potential antidote to America’s epidemic of loneliness and alienation. Because community, sparked and inspired by these experiences, is the real medicine.

To say nothing of a powerful and subversive chemical that often tends to bring people around to fresh perspectives on climate change and social justice. Indeed, its coming legalization and destigmatization may especially open up possibilities of healing for marginalized communities.

Or maybe it will become the go-to medicine for people just wanting to live their best lives. Because responsible recreational — though I prefer the word celebrational — use of MDMA, flush with play, fun, and joy, can spur transformational experiences.

Medicines like MDMA offer us hope in a time of chaos and confusion. Hope for a better life and a better world. By temporarily lowering our defenses, they help us view old concepts in new ways. Ultimately, therefore, they hold the potential for pointing the way out of our national divide, our war on the planet, or our need for enemy-making and war at all. Used correctly, MDMA just might provide the evolutionary tool we need at this moment — the shortest distance (or gleeful sliding pond) between where we are as a species and where we need to be.

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I’ve been learning that, for me, the best response to our current crises, and the bewilderment and despair they can bring, is simply to make my days and life about spreading the word. To tell the unbridled truth about what MDMA can do to heal relationships and grief, and how it can heal loneliness by bonding families and communities together.

What better way to spend one’s time? What more meaningful way to live? 

For my profession of psychotherapy, MDMA just might be our equivalent to the invention of the wheel. Why? Because with it, as so many have reported, therapists can do six to twelve months worth of therapy in a day. Our skills, much like the muscle it takes to lug material up a hill, will of course still be of use. But medically assisted, the therapy will (ahem) roll along much faster. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that, twenty years down the line, the history of psychotherapy will be written as its progress before, and after, the inclusion of MDMA.

Maybe I’m biased. When my wife Shelley and I started exploring this chemical of connection together back in 2004, we found it served as a kind of relationship super glue that added layers of joy, depth and discovery to our marriage and our lives. This has been no small surprise for two folks who’d been dreading the aging process! Over the past eighteen years now, we’ve done MDMA about four or five times a year and have never once had a bad experience. (I mean, not once.) And no “Tuesday blues” either.

Whenever I’m interviewed on a podcast about my book “Listening to Ecstasy” I’m in a real conflict. I always have to take the time to give the prudent disclaimers (“I am not a medical professional…I cannot advise you to do MDMA…”). And I must mention the risks, because you just know there’s somebody out there who’s going to do something stupid and abuse this medicine. I’m all too aware that if you or I overstate the benefits and understate the risks, we risk Americans misusing, then abusing, and then refuting it all once again.

But in reality all I really want to do is extoll MDMA’s many virtues. I’m so tired of restraining myself! It’s draining (and feels increasingly ridiculous) to keep tamping down my enthusiasm, like I’m going against the very grain of my passion. I want to sing this song of liberation — of better living through chemistry — full throated. I’m tired of speaking the words while withholding the music. 

I believe I speak for many of us in the community when I talk of an inner tug of war between a commitment to be responsible, on the one hand, and on the other wanting to bear witness and proselytize on street corners as a PIKHAL-thumping evangelist.

In the end, however, I’m just happy, excited and proud to be a part of it all. Having survived the long dark night of prohibition, I never really believed I’d live to see this day. Most people are – like at daybreak – still asleep to what’s happening. But you and I are here at the sunrise, and it’s a beaut! Maybe it’s time to raise our voices and celebrate this new dawn, and declare to the world the happy truth we know in our hearts.

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