Psychedelic

MDMA Therapy Helped Me Overcome Trauma From Growing up in a War Zone

A startup founder who fled from a chaotic and violent childhood in Myanmar opens up about how MDMA-assisted psychotherapy helped her come to terms with repressed shame and grief.
SJ
as told to Shamani Joshi
Mumbai, IN
October 9, 2020, 1:05pm
MDMA Therapy Helped Me Overcome Trauma From Growing up in a War Zone
Girl with an ecstasy tablet on her tongue, smiley faced pill, UK 2004. Photo courtesy of Universal Images Group via Getty Images

We are publishing a series of stories to coincide with World Mental Health Day on Saturday, Oct. 10. It raises awareness about the importance of mental health and advocates against social stigmas. These are challenging and stressful times. According to the World Health Organization, half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14 but most cases go undetected and untreated. Let’s make the world a kinder and happier place for all to live in.


I don’t remember a lot of my childhood. I do have glimpses of growing up in a conservative military family in Myanmar. Back then, it was known as Burma.

I remember everything around me being in a constant state of chaos and violence when I was just a child. Burma was going through a pro-democracy freedom struggle led by students, and unfortunately, my family was one of the main targets. There were nationwide protests, civil unrest and students who supported the democratic movement were regularly hanged to death.

My mother was the daughter of a decorated military general, so I didn’t get to go to school because my parents were afraid I’d get kidnapped. It was really intense to live with that kind of fear from such a young age. I was around eight when things got really bad for my family and we were forced to escape to Singapore. I think that’s when I first began to dissociate and repress my memories.

All of a sudden, I went from worrying about staying alive in a conservative and chaotic country to living in one of the cleanest, safest and most disciplined cities in the world. I went from living in the midst of unrest to living in a condo. I could eat proper meals and drink as much water as I wanted without worrying about being poisoned. I had access to all kinds of technology. I could finally go to school. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t just trying to survive. I was learning to live.

The thing is that because I was still so young, I couldn’t remember in graphic detail what exactly happened to us in Burma. My parents did though and were always in survival mode. That meant ensuring we stayed alive was their top priority. It also meant that they could never quite open up to me or assure me that I was always going to be safe.

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In 1996, around the time I was 15, we immigrated to the U.S. This country became my home and life progressed. I lived a normal life, went to college, got a job as a medical device salesman, and eventually started my own recruiting business. It was around the time I turned 29 in 2010 that I realised I had depression.

I began seeing a psychiatrist, who put me on antidepressants for six months. I went for regular therapy, but none of it helped. While medication was a blessing and did help me technically feel “not depressed”, it dulled my senses and made me more numb than happy. I was still searching for happiness in my inner conscience. I knew I needed more.

About three years ago, when I was 36, some of my friends tripped on psychedelic mushrooms and had an amazing spiritual experience. I’m normally a total control freak and don’t like losing control, but I was curious to know what the experience would be like. My first shrooms trip was gentle: I felt peaceful, but also felt a lot of fear, like I wasn’t safe around other people. But I did feel a deeper connection to myself, and feel like it allowed me to access some emotions I hadn’t been able to so far. I was conflicted about doing shrooms again after the first trip, but I still wanted to reclaim the peace of mind I found on that trip.

Around the same time, my best friend went through a traumatic breakup, and found an underground MDMA therapist as a result. These are sort of grey area therapists trained to dose you with MDMA. They have a deep understanding of how the drug works, what protocols must be followed, how to create a safe space, and how to support the patient. This one session changed my best friend, who is also an immigrant, and she asked me to share the experience with her. That’s how I stumbled onto my first MDMA therapy experience last April.

The first experience was overwhelming, to say the least. It lasted about seven or eight hours, and I felt dissociated for a big part of it. But during the moments I was conscious of, it felt like my inner psyche was having these conversations with me, telling me that so many things I felt depressed or anxious about were not my problems. It was as if my psyche was filing my fears into cabinets of what was my own pain, and what pain I was carrying for my parents and others. I saw myself in this giant glass container with the top open, afraid as I looked out at everybody, even though nobody could see me. I didn’t know what sense to make of all of it.

For weeks after that experience, I was feeling all these emotions I hadn’t allowed myself to ever feel. I was confused and wanted answers, but I was still too scared to try it again. Then, I went for a dinner party and met a man named Rick Doblin, who was a psychedelic researcher [and founder of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) which describes itself as a “non-profit research and educational organization that develops medical, legal, and cultural contexts for people to benefit from the careful uses of psychedelics and marijuana”].

In the last few years, we’ve seen a surge in companies like MAPS and ATAI Life Sciences, another scientific research company working to make less harmful derivatives of drugs like MDMA and DMT for therapeutic purposes. [Even the US Food & Drug Admnistration (FDA) has given permission for certain companies to enroll PTSD patients who have tried unsuccessfully to treat their condition, in MDMA psychotherapy.]

Doblin was able to explain to me that the visual I’d experienced of being stuck in a glass container with an open lid was a manifestation of the feelings I repressed as a scared little girl. The glass container was a reflection of the boundaries I built for myself, always giving myself to other people, but never letting them in. I was afraid of being vulnerable, but the open top meant I was reaching out to embrace others. Hearing that helped me be more prepared for my second session.

Almost three months later, I decided I was ready to try MDMA therapy again, this time with a different therapist. In my second session, I felt this intense feeling in my chest. It was like a prickly pain throbbing inside me. A voice in my head told me to ask my therapist to hold my hand. The next thing I know, I was asking her to hold me, like a mother holds a baby. And then, at the core of all the pain in my chest, I realised what I was feeling: Shame. Shame that I didn’t even know I had. Shame I was carrying for my mother, who faced the wrath of the people for being the daughter of a military general. It was incredibly painful, but the therapy session I had afterwards allowed me to accept those parts of myself with compassion. I realised I was carrying the burdens and trauma of my parents.

I was dazed for 14 hours straight. I felt raw and vulnerable, but I realised how unkind I’d been to myself. My self-hate always made me push myself to achieve, whether it was being a good student or giving every part of myself to my job. I think I was like that because I knew how much my parents had to sacrifice for me, and I believed I too needed to overachieve to survive. But after my second session, for the first time, I realised I had to be kinder to myself, give myself a break and enjoy my life.

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I went into my third session with a deeper understanding of myself. The first hour was light and beautiful, filled with positive emotions. Then, I was overtaken by this intense sadness. It was a 100 times worse than the pain I felt with shame, like a heavy burp that I just couldn’t seem to let out. Suddenly, a childhood memory flashed in front of me: of people from my tribe lying on the ground as they heaved and cried with pain, shaking with a sense of loss. That was how we expressed grief in our primitive state, and I realised that’s how I could let the burp escape. I had dissociated from all that pain to allow myself a normal childhood. But by feeling it, I was also letting it go.

MDMA gifted me with an opening of my emotions. It allowed me to understand the parts of myself I hadn’t been in touch with. It helped me listen to the voice in my head asking me to let other people in. Being a control freak, I would normally never allow myself to cry in front of anyone, keeping my shoulders tight and swallowing my tears. Now, my friends and I drive out to isolated locations outside the city just to have these intense sessions where we cry and grieve. It feels like a pop in your entire body because you finally know you’re releasing the sadness and trauma, and allowing yourself to feel love.

I come from two generations of highly controlled parents who never expressed their emotions. And I think my depression and repressed trauma came from not understanding what I was feeling.

Fear is often how we protect ourselves from our grief and shame. Today, I’m no longer afraid of facing my own thoughts. I feel fluid and free, and comfortable in my own skin.

For me, MDMA wasn’t something that made me happy or helped me party. It was the key to unlocking my emotions, and awakening my mind.

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