The third and final trial of a study to determine whether MDMA, ecstasy’s active ingredient, can safely and effectively treat PTSD has just gotten FDA approval. If it’s successful, medical uses of the drug could become legal within the next five years.
Some may interpret the drug’s success in the first two trials and other studies as an argument against restricting recreational use. But it still carries many risks, as I learned when I took MDMA with a friend and attempted to be her informal therapist.
A few weeks ago, a friend and I split an ecstasy pill at a bar. It was my first time taking it outside a club or concert. Knowing MDMA had been used for therapy, we wanted to have a candid conversation about our lives and arrive at insights we may not otherwise. But she had more baggage than I realized — and dropped a bomb that would permanently change me. (Trigger warning: physical violence, though I won’t describe specifics.)
During a dark time in her life when she was confronting childhood sexual abuse, she told me, a pet of hers became the “outlet for her rage.” I would have normally stopped her right there and told her I couldn’t stand to hear about something like that. But the drug brought all my walls down, and I let her go on. I heard in detail everything she did, and it was even more horrific than I expected.
In the hyper-empathetic state that ecstasy induces, I experienced all of it right along with her — not only the acts of violence she committed, but also the unparalleled pain that could lead someone to do that.
It didn’t sink in until we’d gone back to her apartment that I couldn’t stop her story from playing through my head. Every object in the room somehow reminded me of it. I couldn’t be alone with her or sleep over with her as planned. I told her I had to leave, walked out with no idea where I was going and texted two friends, “Can I have a cuddle please.”
At 1 a.m., they met me at their office, the closest private place we could find, and held me as I shook.
They slept on either side of me, stroking my hair to calm me down and accompanying me to the bathroom because I was scared to be alone. The next day, I sat on the couch crying for hours. I slept beside friends for days, afraid of what I’d see when I closed my eyes. I tipped baristas extra, gave money to a homeless person on the train and cuddled every animal I could to assuage guilt that shouldn’t have belonged to me.
A week later, I broke down crying at a bar because the story popped into my head again. “She did that, not you,” a friend tried to convince me as I sobbed and wheezed and gasped for air in the bathroom.
“You haven’t done anything like that, have you?” I asked.
Knowing one person in my life was unexpectedly capable of abuse had thrown me into a tailspin of wondering who else was.
Another two weeks after that, I donated to the North Shore Animal League in a desperate attempt to make something good come out of this.
Gradually, I’ve regained my sanity and returned to a normal but altered life. But I’m more easily startled and scared of the dark, and I still can’t get her words out of my head. It’s as if the memory is mine now.
Certain objects and words trigger the story and set me into a state of panic. Among them are her face and name. I backed out of an event because I knew she’d be there, and my heart skips a beat whenever I scroll through my texts and see old ones from her.
It makes sense to me that MDMA could help PTSD patients. In fact, it may have helped my former friend offload her trauma — onto me.
But people shouldn’t take this, like I did, as a reason to conduct informal therapy sessions of their own. To the contrary, the same properties that make the drug useful in a therapist’s office make it dangerous outside one.
It makes you so quick to trust that you disclose information against your better judgment. And it makes you feel so connected to others that you can’t distinguish their thoughts or experiences from your own. When one person’s desperate to reveal the darkest depths of their minds and the other’s eager to jump into the deep end, that becomes a scary combination.
I hope nobody else has to learn that the hard way.