MDMA and Psychology

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I had begun giving a course in forensic toxicology on the Berkeley campus of the University of California. I usually gathered between 20 and 30 students, and over half of them managed to stay in there with me to the very end of the course. I doubt that any of them were a great deal wiser in matters of forensic toxicology, but most of them had been exposed to what I considered very useful and important information and had been adequately entertained. One of my more devoted students was a sweet youngster, a guitar player, who had the world's most devastating stutter. Just before most words that stating with a vowel (or, for that matter, with any one of several consonants), he would tie up completely until he either (1) inhaled and exhaled at a measured pace several times, or (2) jerked his head to one side and changed the starting word. His name was Klaus.
Klaus was intrigued with MDA and, for some reason, with its N-methylated homologue, MDMA. He actually arranged to find lab space somewhere in the Life Sciences Building and set up a summer project to work out useful procedures for making MDMA. He was in perennial torment with his speech impediment whenever I happened to see him – which was rarely – and after a while, I lost all contact with him.
It was some time later, as I was bouncing across campus to a meeting that I spotted him, and – with only a moment's pause - remembering who he was.
”How are you” I asked, awaiting the breathing pattern or the shift of head.
”In excellent spirits,” came the reply, with only a suggestion of a rolled R in the word, “spirits.”
”And your music?” I continued bravely, now doubting that I had identified him correctly.
”Only once in a while.” the O's in “only” and “once” were each being held just a mite too long, so I was reassured that this was indeed my Klaus.
”But,” he added, without breaking stride, “That methylated MDA allowed me to do new things with myself.”
”What, for example?” I asked.
”Well, for one thing, I have some control over my talking for the first time. And I've decided to take up a new career.”
”And that is – ?”
”Speech therapy.”
I have lost track of Klaus, but I believe that his was one of the earliest clues had that there was something akin to snake-oil – in the sense of an apparent cure for anything that ails you – about this elixir called MDMA.
Another early trial showed yet a different view of its action.
A good friend of mine, Charles Miller, had been following my research for many years, and he occasionally asked if I thought it might be useful to him to someday have an experience. I had always put such ideas off to some unidentified future time, as I felt uncomfortable with what might come up from his unconscious in any opening experience. Although he was a gentle and giving person, he was strongly opinionated – actually inflexibly opinionated – and a committed alcoholic. And with his daily change of state with alcohol, there was daily change of personality, revealing towards the end of the evening an outspoken, largely anti-everything person; especially anti-intellectual and anti-homosexual.
That is a combination that has always been a danger signal to me, and I slowly came to believe that Charlie had in some way come to peace with many of the difficulties that had surely tormented him in his youth. Not necessarily resolved them – but at least gotten them buried deeply and safely into the unconscious. And I was not at all certain that I wished to be the person who provided the instrument to unearth any of it.
His wife, Janice, had never expressed any interest in such exploration although she too knew intellectually of my research interests. But it was she who called me one day asking if she (and her younger son) might use a few hours of my time – to answer a question or two. It was Janice who had the questions; her son was apparently coming along to give her moral support, as he was quite worldly in the drug area. I suggested that afternoon. They accepted. As I have often noted, when the time is right, it becomes unmistakably obvious that it is right.
Janice, her son, and I all three of us, took 120 milligrams of MDMA in the early afternoon, and the son went off by himself. At about the half hour point, the usual “awareness”time, Janice gave no indication of effects, nor were there any changes at the 40 minute nor at the 50 minute point. A few off-hand comments were offered.
”My throat is dry.”
”I'll get you a glass of water.” which I did. It did no good.
I'm having trouble breathing.”
”So, breath as best you can.” I noticed by the reflection in the window where we were, at the back of the house, that she had no difficulty breathing when I wasn't watching her.
We walked up the hill, to an area I had leased out to the condominium builders of the neighboring land for the storage of lumber, there were several 'no smoking' signs around as fire warnings.
”Do you think I smoke too much?”
”Do you think you smoke too much?”
”I don't think so.”
”Then the answer is probably not.”
It was now an hour into the experiment, and still no acknowledgment of any activity from the MDMA. Then, came the unexpected question, the “off the wall” question.
”Is it alright to be alive?”
”You bet your sweet ass it's all right to be alive! It's a grace to be alive!”
"That was it. She plunged into the MDMA state, and started running down the hill, calling out that it was all right to be alive. All the greens became living greens and all the sticks and stones became vital sticks and stones. I caught up with her and her face was radiant. She told me some of her personal history which she knew well, and which I knew well, but with which she had never come to peace.
She had come into the world by an unexpected Caesarean section and her mother had died during the delivery. And for fifty years she had lived in the guilt of having had her life given her at the cost of her mother's life. She had been in therapy with her family physician for about three years, largely addressing this problem, and apparently what she needed was the acknowledgment that it was all right to be alive.
I didn't hear from her for a couple of months. When she did call, she volunteered that she still felt very much at peace, and had discontinued her therapy.
In most of my own early experimental trials, I concentrated on the area of 80 to 100 milligrams, and I used the word, “window,” in my notes to describe the effects. It enabled me to see out, and to see my own insides, without distortion or reservations.
Helen and I would occasionally take 6:00 PM Friday to 4:00 PM Sunday trip with our friends – George and Ruth Close, whom we had known from the old Cal hall days – on a special train out of Oakland called the Reno Fun train. As the train proceeded eastwards across the Sierras, the mass of people would get increasingly noisy, with much food and drink, and even dancing in a music car. (After some thirty hours in the gambling casinos, the return trip was considerably more subdued.) Helen was basically uncomfortable with drugs, but perfectly at ease with an occasional drink; the Closes were, at that time, naïve about any altered states except those induced by alcohol. On one of our trips, during our private foursome dinner with the cracked crab and avocado dip in the noisy car, I asked them if they would be offended if I filled my glass with quinine-water and the contents of small vial, rather than with a martini. Why? An experiment, I said. Okay, they said, why not!
It worked. It seemed that my gradual intoxication locked into theirs very smoothly. They forgot that I was using a chemical rather than vodka. So, for a while, I referred to MDMA as my low-calorie martini.
Not long after that, I met and became very close to a likeable couple of professional researchers and teachers from Germany, Ursula and Adolph, as Biehls, who were studying for a year with Terry Major. Dolph, as he called himself, had taken a modest dosage of LSD one day and his experience had been extraordinarily complex, difficult and frightening. He continued for several weeks having problems with reintegration.
I suggested, after considerable thought, that - although a new psychedelic experience would certainly not be appropriate – MDMA might be of some help to him. It was not a psychedelic, I emphasize, and explained the “window” concept, and why I thought he could perhaps use it to repair himself.
I shared the experience with the two of them. It was a memorable day. There was verbal honesty without reserve, and the experiment led to an intimate friendship which would last between the three of use for several years. Dolph's LSD trauma was resolved in those few hours, and he emerged, in his own words, newborn. Another hint of snake-oil. MDMA, it was beginning to be apparent, could be all things to all people.

pp. 69-72 Pihkal by Alexander Shulgin (1991)