Living an MDMA Love Letter

It’s not surprising that a psychotherapist known as The Love Doctor would write a book sharing insights he’s learned from his own loving marriage.

Plot twist: He’s a 71-year-old relationship counselor who calls MDMA “relationship super glue.”

In addition to offering rich how-to resources, Charley Wininger’s new book, “Listening to Ecstasy,” acts as a love letter to his wife, Shelley Wininger, that details how MDMA has helped them deepen their relationship and create a community.

“Fun, play and joy can be transformative experiences,” Charley says, explaining that rolling together gives the couple relationship capital that helps them get through hard times, while also helping them create a vision for their life together. This is the second marriage for both, and they’ve built a fundamentally different partnership the second time around.

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Plenty of authors dedicate their book to their spouse, saying something along the lines of “I couldn’t have done it without you.” But in Charley’s case, it’s literally true. This book wouldn’t exist without Shelley. Charley had written off MDMA as “a substance without substance” before the two started dating about two decades ago.

After leaving her marriage of 18 years, Shelley recalls feeling, “There’s got to be more to life than this.” She’d only smoked pot a few times, and generally lived the straight and narrow, but she craved adventure. She thought Charley could help her find it. “I knew he could show me more.”

Charley agreed to act as sort of a participating guide, procuring the medicine and crafting set and setting. Shelley describes her first MDMA experience as a release, while Charley remembers “it brought the joyful part of her out all the more.”

And for him? Charley writes in his book, “in turning her on, I got reintroduced myself. I experienced, as if for the first time, this lift of aliveness, a kind of sensual affirmation of my spirit.”

One major change was that Charley had taken MDMA as a party drug before. “I didn’t know back then that MDMA is basically for one-on-one experiences,” he said.

Since the two of them delighted in the MDMA bond, they began inviting one or two couples to their apartment for small group rolls. Momentum picked up, and they eventually gathered as many as 27 friends in a park. What looked like an everyday picnic was in fact a group of adults sharing days of open-hearted connection.

“We decided early on to invest our major social capital in the community,” Charley Wininger said of their psychedelic posse. “These people have become some of our best friends.”

This writer is grateful to count themselves among the Winingers’ friends. I almost certainly blushed when I read an advance copy of “Listening to Ecstasy” and saw that Charley thanked my husband, John Tebeau, and me for our support, seeing the A-list company we were among. 

“The best part of the psychedelic community isn’t the psychedelics; it’s the community.”

Charley Wininger, in “Listening to Ecstasy”

Charley and Shelley Wininger are now the welcome committee for psychedelics in New York City.

Since 2004, they have hosted potlucks that MAPS promotes. But it helps to already be on Charley and Shelley’s email list. Even though they’ve packed people in shoulder to shoulder, sitting not just on the couch, loveseat and chairs but all along the floor, all four nights filled up quickly with a long waiting list.

(That is, until the pandemic.)

After the couple hosted a small viewing party for MAPS, watching the Peter Jennings-narrated Ecstasy Rising in their Brooklyn apartment, they felt they were on to something. They wanted to connect with fellow travelers.

Initially, they had reservations. Shelley was still working as a nurse and didn’t want to risk her losing her license, nor did Charley want to put his psychotherapy practice in jeopardy. They worried about being ostracized, too.

Charley recalls expressing his concerns to Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of MAPS, and that Doblin replied, “What exactly are you afraid of?”

When I replayed this to Doblin to see if he remembered the exchange, he chuckled knowingly, and explained he’s given many a pep talk to people worried about disclosing their drug use.

“What I have learned is you can speak about your own psychedelic experiences without getting yourself in trouble,” Doblin said, referring to legal incrimination rather than professional licensing or the reaction of friends and family. 

Doblin called the Winingers’ willingness to host dozens of strangers “quite unusual and quite pioneering.” While psychedelic societies connect people across the country and around the world, MAPS hasn’t developed local chapters and the psychedelic society demographic is not generally silver-haired boomers.

“I think what Charley and Shelley are doing, not just in their gatherings but in other parts of their life, to come out,” Doblin adds, “it’s had this multiplying effect.”

As part of Charley deciding to write “Listening to Ecstasy,” the couple had to fully commit to being public about their experiences.

“I just couldn’t stand not being who I was in the world,” Charley says. “I’m too old to care what people think.”

While Shelley used to worry about her career and her relationship with her grandkids, now she feels “I’ve got to do what works for me.”

And what works for them is open-heartedly sharing their world. I’ve seen Shelley charge up to people with the warm enthusiasm of a golden retriever to invite them to a potluck, and I’ve seen them take a shine to newbies at events, introducing them around and helping them feel welcome.

I first met Charley at a MAPS fundraiser. In a crowded, boisterous event space, he seemed to decide immediately that we were friends. Within a few minutes of chatting, he handed me a small, clear plastic bag containing a silver-colored zinc alloy pendant in the shape of the MDMA chemical structure – a molly-cule.

At Wininger potlucks, some guests wear the molly-cule as a necklace while at least one dangles it on an earring. It is a visual signal of shared connection.

“People into psychedelics tend to be the kind of people, I’ve learned over time, I want to be open to. Fellow travelers have so much to share, and the openness is contagious,” Charley says.

The Winingers’ openness comes in different forms. While Shelley is effervescent, Charley is more cerebral. They’re both warm, but in different ways that complement each other as a team.

Sarah Rose Siskind, host of the educational comedy show Drug Test, recalls going to a Wininger potluck for the first time. “When I showed up, I remember Charley saying, ‘I feel like I’m meeting a celebrity,’ and I said, ‘I feel the same.’”

“Charley really is a bright star in the constellation of the psychedelic family,” Siskind said. “He’s the Kevin Bacon of psychedelics.”

That constellation shone brightly at Charley’s virtual book launch Nov. 13, featuring a star-studded panel including Rick Doblin, artists Alex and Allyson Grey, playwright and performer Rich Orloff and fellow therapist/author/psychedelic advocate Julie Holland.

See Also

The Changing Image of MDMA

One of the first books to explore the medical potential of MDMA, Julie Holland’s “Ecstasy: The Complete Guide,” was published in 2001, when MDMA was still largely seen as a party drug, typically known as Ecstasy or molly. Today, researchers are exploring whether MDMA can combat PTSD and depression, among other benefits.

Holland says she’s been getting emails from people for years asking when she was going to release an update to her book to reflect all that’s changed. For example, she notes, there’s better information on the dangers, so guidance on harm reduction could be retooled to avoid both dehydration and drinking too much water.

“I welcome a book like this because we certainly need more information,” Holland says of “Listening to Ecstasy.”

Holland adds that Charley Wininger writing about his experience leading group rolls is unique, since so much literature is about individuals using MDMA with a guide.

“They have been instrumental in hosting their community,” Holland says. “This is where they shine.”

On Being Roll Models

Early in “Listening to Ecstasy,” we read about Charley and Shelley Wininger going to the Philadelphia Experiment summer festival, a smaller regional burn a la Burning Man. Rolling on MDMA, they dance and take in the various spectacles, before Shelley surprises Charley by leading him to a play party.

When they gather themselves and their clothes to leave, the party’s gatekeeper says, “We were cheering for you both! Frankly, you guys make me feel less afraid of growing older.”

Charley and Shelley Wininger rolling at the beach.

While Shelley does look fetching with a splash of pastel color brightening her short gray locks, don’t think for a moment these are seniors pretending to still be kids. On the contrary, the Winingers celebrate their age.

“When you do psychedelics as an adult, you are bringing all your life experience to it,” Charley says. “It was a revelation to me – aging can be joyous and even hedonistic.

“The problem with aging for most people isn’t aging, it’s agism,” he adds.

Shelley Wininger, who has six stents to help manage heart health, recalls telling her doctor recently, “I’m not decrepit.”

“This can be an age of ripening and an enriching time, when one can mine their memories for meaning,” Charley says.

He’s surprised himself at how much fun they’re having, he at 71, she at 69, thanks in large part to doing MDMA and psychedelics with friends.

“I thought sex would be dead, I thought life would be staid and rote, and a slow demise into boredom and isolation,” Charley says. “It’s helping me approach my 70s better.”

Listening to Ecstasy: The Transformative Power of MDMA” launched from publisher Park Street Press on Nov. 10. Order from an independent bookstore here.

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