When I first met and married Dr. Alexander Shulgin, known to everyone as “Sasha,” he was still publishing his discoveries about psychedelics in scientific journals. I had spent about three years working as a lay therapist, which means I had no proper credentials, no formal training and no reason to believe I wasn’t nuts. During my first year of self-training, I sat with a few friends, a psychiatrist, a person who worked in state government, and then with a couple of patients I inherited from the psychiatrist. We administered MDMA at the usual psychotherapeutic dose of 120 milligrams, often with a supplement of 40 or 50 milligrams at the one-and-a-half-hour point. (In a few special sessions, we used another drug Sasha invented, a psychedelic — which MDMA is not — called 2-CB, which has a clean, uncluttered effect on the emotions.)
I learned a lot. Every new person was a new universe, and I had to listen carefully — with both mind and heart — and be prepared to make mistakes. And I had to learn that, when I did make those mistakes, it was vital that I admit them to myself and to the patient as soon as I realized I’d been wrong. In other words, I learned a lot of humility.
All this time, MDMA was legal. Or, to be exact, it was not yet illegal. It was being used by a great number of psychologists and psychiatrists, all across the country and in Europe. But since it was an experimental form of psychotherapy, completely unrecognized and certainly unapproved by the medical and psychological establishment, most of us didn’t really know what other therapists — lay or professional — were doing. Gradually word was getting around, and at social events some of us were beginning to compare notes about the best ways of using this magical insight drug.
The second and third years of my work as a lay therapist were different. I met, worked with and then became co-therapist with an extraordinarily skillful hypnotherapist. It was the most exciting work I’ve ever done. It was also exhausting. Sessions would last a minimum of six hours, and if there was a need for extended work because something important was trying to break through, we would keep going until the breakthrough was accomplished. I learned to limit these sessions to twice weekly because of the amount of energy it took to concentrate on one person for six or more hours with no more than bathroom breaks and perhaps a quick bite to eat, remaining completely receptive and keeping one’s intuition active and all one’s antennae wiggling efficiently.
In the 1980s, the legal departments of the scientific journals in which Sasha had been publishing his research got cold feet and his work with them came to an end. But we decided that this knowledge still had to be made available, especially to the scientific community. If we couldn’t count on the cooperation of the journals while this new hysteria called the War on Drugs was obscuring common sense, we would have to get the information out in a book. We began working together on PIhkAL (Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved): A Chemical Love Story.
There were no journal articles published on the use of MDMA in therapy. When the government decided to hold hearings on the possibility of scheduling MDMA, all the therapists who had been using the drug had been postponing writing about it, waiting for the time when they thought there might be more receptivity in the professional societies. Of course, as we now know, this was a tragic mistake. If there had been just a few good papers submitted to the most respected journals, we would have been able to use those papers as proof that MDMA had “medical utility,” which would have kept it from being slammed into Schedule I, where the DEA categorizes drugs with “high abuse potential and no recognized medical use.”
In 1985, MDMA was made illegal. I wasn’t the only person who cried. This is a drug that for some clients could save months of time and expense in psychotherapy, a drug that allows insight into the parts of oneself that are unacceptable, unlovable and unbearable while at the same time — in some way we still don’t understand — making it possible to see and acknowledge all these aspects of one’s soul without self-rejection, self-hatred and self-loathing. This drug, I felt then and still feel now, could be the answer to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), especially in the case of war veterans. Research on the use of MDMA in the treatment of PTSD is just now beginning in Israel and Spain. This is research that should have been conducted 20 years ago.
When Sasha and I began writing our books, I gave up doing the therapy sessions — not just because MDMA had become illegal, but because I knew I wouldn’t be able to give the best of myself to either work if I tried to do both. Now, having stopped doing this kind of therapy for well over 10 years, I can lecture in public and write openly about it, while fully trained and credentialed therapists who continued using MDMA underground can say nothing without risking a charge of committing a felony. A strange, new class of criminals: psychotherapists who refuse to give up using a compound that helps rescue strained marriages, traumatized victims of assault and rape, war veterans who cannot come to terms with the hellish memories that haunt them, and people in search of expanding their spiritual world.
I detest the use of the term Ecstasy for MDMA, as does Sasha. Not only has Ecstasy come to be associated with raves, street sales of questionable product, and lurid disaster tales on television and in the press, but the stuff sold as Ecstasy is not always MDMA — there are, apparently, many people willing to risk the lives of eager young adults by selling them truly dangerous drugs under the name of Ecstasy. Also, the highest and best use of MDMA is in therapy and for personal insight, which is somewhat discouraged by noise and strenuous physical activity. But considering that most large raves are held not far from big cities, and that the young people growing up in those cities learn very quickly to be suspicious of strangers, the use of MDMA at a rave is not entirely negative. Under those circumstances, sophisticated, street-wise young adults can let their guards down and for a few wonderful moments have a sense of euphoria and participation with people they’ve never met before. And euphoria is good for you.
Sasha is looking for tools with which to attempt an understanding of the human mind. (Not brain, but mind.) My search is a bit different. Psychedelics and visionary plants are, for me, tools for spiritual growth — however you might understand that word, spiritual. My true aim in life is simple: I want to get as close as I can to understanding not just the human mind, but the mind of God — and I want to be able to live with what I find. I believe that every human being wants exactly the same thing, only most of us don’t manage to articulate the wish to ourselves. We don’t realize that that’s what we’re all trying to do. Psychedelics are my way, but they are certainly only one of a multitude of ways, all deserving of respect.