New York City's latest Horizons Psychedelic Conference took place in a church. There were stained glass windows, columns, and marble angels. The setting matched the mood perfectly, as a series of distinguished psychedelics researchers from around the world described drug-induced mystical states of consciousness often associated with the divine.
Most of the speakers were protected in their studies by government exemptions to harsh anti-drug laws. Relationship coach Annie Lalla was not.
Lalla had read about reported successes of MDMA-aided psychotherapy, and decided to try it herself. The drug, commonly known as ecstasy or molly, instills a euphoric and empathic feeling in the user, along with diminished defensiveness. Individuals under the influence of MDMA typically display a greater desire and ability to bond. You really, really like everyone, in other words—that's what makes it so popular.
Studies are showing that therapeutic sessions with the drug can continue to help patients even years later. "MDMA gives people a template [for how] they can relate to challenging emotions," researcher Dr. Michael Mithoefer told me over the phone. "They can refer back to it after the medicine wears off."
Lalla recognized the drug's potential to help resolve her own personal and relational issues. She experimented with MDMA first on her own before embarking upon a mission to enroll her mother, father, brother, and sister in MDMA-aided family therapy. "You get a publicly-witnessed permanent record in your heart of your love for each other," she told me. "It's stored in your heart, and you can draw on it forever."
I sat down with Lalla to discuss what her experiences with MDMA have taught her about building better relationships.
VICE: Can you describe your work as a coach?
Annie Lalla: Professionally, I work with single clients and couples. The couples are often suffering recurring drama and conflict. They don't know how to move through the power struggle. That's kind of my expertise. I think 90 percent of couples never get past the power struggle.
How do you address that?
Well, for example, whenever myself and my husband are in conflict, we literally map out the conflict space. We've got our laptop out: "OK, so you're pissed about this, and I'm pissed about that. What does it have to do with sex, reproductive issues, money?" We're always tracking where we are in the conflict. I think people fight about the same things in the same ways. There are recurring motifs that I'm looking for, and that I use to help the couples I'm working with.
What do you do when you find the source of the conflict?
What I've come to realize is that it all basically boils down to, "Oh, you feel unsafe." No matter if they're yelling, screaming, crying—if I can feel a power move, I think, Oh, you're scared. So, I try to regulate my nervous system to take care of my sense of safety. Then, from that place, I think about how I can get them back to feeling safe.
No matter if they're yelling, screaming, crying—if I can feel a power move, I think, Oh, you're scared.
Is the power struggle ever resolved?
It's never resolved. The best you can do is to become aware of it, and to manage it. You can't stop wanting to arm wrestle, but you can say, "I'm arm wrestling intentionally, for something I believe in, and I'm not doing it compulsively or unconsciously." Instead of letting your animal use your cognitive functions to do whatever it wants, you align yourself with what your animal is trying to do, and what you think is serving your current and future selves. You find the overlap between those, and that alignment is the place where you operate during your power struggle.
What do you mean when you say "animal"?
We are animals, and the more unsafe we feel, the more we want to control our environment. Every animal down from the amoeba all the way up to us does it, and so I think our relationship with our partners [consists of] replaying old dance routines of unfinished power battles that we had with our first attachment figures: our parents.
Have your MDMA experiences changed the way you deal with conflict? Absolutely, yes. MDMA is egolytic [ego-dissolving] and the power struggle is between two egos. So, the more that the two egos feel separate, the more polarized the power struggle is. [With MDMA] you can empathically toggle between your perspective and theirs.
How do you use their perspective?
If you wanted to break into a house from the outside, you can, but it's way easier if you scope out the house from the inside first. Then you can create a map that you can use to infiltrate.
Stealth is important. The reason why I'm ethically comfortable with stealth is my attention. If the thing you're trying to burgle is the other person's presence and yours, I can get behind that. Most people are trying to burgle things that are not sacred. They're not operating on a sacred mission.
What other insights have you gained from MDMA?
If you pushed me metaphysically, I would have to say there's another step that I think exists in very intense psychedelic states. It's a state of communion beyond the separateness of self. Your being-ness and my being-ness ceases to be separate. We one-ify. So, I think that's possible in intense mystic states, but I don't think most people get there very often.
I think our personality is a series of defenses against unsafe childhood conditions. So we develop a defended self that then becomes our character and personality.
Are you able to use that insight to strengthen relationships?
On MDMA, in my historic private use—not necessarily with my family, but in my romantic relationships—I can taste where there is a wall [between myself and] the person that I love. And I can feel the wall is obsolete because the ego that is erecting the wall ceases to require it. It's a defense. And when the ego is more porous, it just needs less defenses.
What is it defending against?
I think our personality is a series of defenses against unsafe childhood conditions. So we develop a defended self that then becomes our character and personality. And, in some ways, I'm grateful for that. I think of a bonsai tree, which is a beautiful work of art. It's a stunted tree, but artfully stunted. So, I feel like the environmental conditions of your life are stunting you into this particular flavor of God.
How do you balance a need for defenses with a need for vulnerability?
Often your defenses are against circumstances that are no longer the case. You're often using [childhood] strategies in current situations that are obsolete, because you have more resources, intelligence, and wherewithal now. It's like moths moving towards the light. They move towards the light because when they evolved, only stars existed. It kept them alive, and now it kills them. The same strategy that once served life is now destructive.
I've been collecting dreams from around the world for a project, and I've noticed that those kinds of childhood themes come up again and again. Are dreams something you use in your work?
Dreams can be very helpful. I usually try to tell my dream to my partner or someone, because they'll see a pattern that I won't see. The dream is telling me that there's a blind spot. That's why [the issue] has to be smuggled into my dream space. The other trick I use is to identify with each character in the dream, and each item in the dream. So if I dream about a cat walking through a door and falling off a cliff, I'm the cat, I'm the door, and I'm the cliff. I climb into each one, and think, What can I learn from this?
They say there's a series of emotions; I really think there's only love and fear. And even then, I don't think there's fear. I think there is just love, and fear is in the shadow of love when you forget temporarily that love is the nature of reality.
Can you talk about some of the specific issues that you've worked on with your family?
Way back [when we began], there were a lot. My mother had a very marginalized voice in the family, and with my father, there was a subtle tyranny. And through the MDMA sessions, that was a big part of what I was trying to elucidate—the ways in which he unknowingly was perpetrating this inequity. Once it became part of his consciousness, he could see that it was inconsistent with his identity. He wasn't the typical Indian patriarch. He wouldn't let his daughters learn to cook or clean because he never wanted us to be domesticated housewives. He wanted the feminine to be powerful.
What do you mean when you say "subtle tyranny?"
The way it would show up would be like a raised voice, or he would become impenetrable in conversation. He would just repeat the same thing, and you couldn't talk to him about the issue.
How did you make him realize the effect he was having?
I remember one time, all of us got together and expressed anecdotal descriptions of moments when he had interacted with us in a way that had made us feel smaller. So him hearing that—and being under the influence of the MDMA—his ego was soft enough that he could not take it as an attack, and just hear it as reflections of behavior that was inconsistent with who we wanted to be. We even had him write out some commitments to remember. It's almost like notes to his future self—notes about how he wanted to be as a husband and a father so he could refer to them later. It was his own writing, and his own signature, so there was really strong accountability for taking on the epiphanies that came up. Over the course of five years, he has become less and less tyrannical.
It's interesting that you bring up the idea of there being two personas, the MDMA persona and the sober persona. What's the difference?
Well, the sober state defends itself more, and the MDMA state is the more real self.
What makes it more real?
It has less fear. They say there's a series of emotions; I really think there's only love and fear. And even then, I don't think there's fear. I think there is just love, and fear is in the shadow of love when you forget temporarily that love is the nature of reality. There's no such thing as a shadow in and of itself, it's just a lack of sunlight. You could argue that shadows are just as real as the tree and the sun, but there's a way in which the tree is more real. But if I had to bet my life on what's more real, I bet on the thing that inspires me. I consciously confer more reality to the things I'm inspired by.
It's to the point now where most of my friends wouldn't know whether I'm on MDMA or not.
Getting back to MDMA, I wanted to ask, what was your first time taking it like?
It was like home. My whole life up until that point, I was trying to have interactions with people that look like that. As long as I can remember, whenever I've met someone, I was looking for maximal intimacy per square inch per moment in our interaction.
What did that look like?
Sometimes I would be intrusive, or ask really intimate questions that were socially inappropriate. I just [wanted] to understand all the intricacies of the feelings and thoughts underneath the spoken statements. Shouldn't we be talking about that?
Did you expose yourself as well? Or was the exchange mostly one-directional?
When I was younger, it was more one-directional. I got alerted to that in high school. I started to realize that everyone felt very exposed around me, but no one actually knew me. Then I realized it was a defense mechanism. MDMA showed me that intimacy is the place that both of us climb into together, and we're naked together. And that felt way better than the other version that I'd been doing. When I was on MDMA, I would have an interaction with another human being I didn't know three minutes ago, and the level of fluid connection and alignment was the highest that I'd ever seen in a first encounter.
Are you able to recreate that feeling off of MDMA?
I knew from my research not to pin whatever I got from the MDMA onto the MDMA. The MDMA was just the facilitator. Say I was on MDMA right now, and I go and talk to [a nearby woman]. I would feel that I could talk to her easily without having an excuse. I know a lot of people say, "Oh, it's the MDMA. The MDMA allowed me to talk to her." Well, I knew that the MDMA wasn't doing anything that I couldn't normally do. It made me aware of what I could do. And if I took note of what I was doing on MDMA, I could become more like that person when I was off MDMA. It's to the point now where most of my friends wouldn't know whether I'm on MDMA or not.
Does your experience with the drug make normal reality less interesting?
It makes baseline reality more like a fascinating Sudoku. It's like a mystery. It's very entertaining. I love being on MDMA, but I love being off of it too. My first drug ever was LSD, which goes from six to eight hours and then it's done. It's like going on a roller coaster. Do you say, "I hate my life when I'm not on a roller coaster?" No, you enjoy the rest of the park.
Why did you choose to use MDMA with your family instead of LSD or mushrooms , for example?
I chose MDMA because it's the most likely [drug for] not having anything negative come up or to have a bad trip. It also had the most research behind it, about it being therapeutically useful.
What were some of the concerns that you had to overcome with your family about using MDMA?
My mom was worried about it being illegal and addictive. She has no knowledge about drugs. Crack, cocaine, heroin—she had them all mixed together [in her mind] with MDMA. So I had to differentiate them for her. I had to use research to help her see that there's not this thing called "drugs." There are specific drugs. First, I had to separate out addictive and not addictive. I was able to show her that alcohol was actually more dangerous—she'd be OK having a glass of wine. [But] alcohol actually has more negative physiological effects in the body and is more addictive. She was worried about MDMA being illegal. And I had to say, "Yeah, it's illegal. And, here are the reasons why it's probably illegal. It doesn't suit the status quo powers in the world."
My sister was like, "I'm going to go crazy." She thought she could get physically hurt. So again, I had to take her to websites and show how the biochemistry works. We took 5-HTP. We took all the serotonin precursors. We did as much as we could to mitigate any neurotoxicity.
What's your end goal with all of this work?
I want myself and the people around me to feel the most alive. I mean, basically I think every emotion is a messenger from the unconscious mind to deliver an important insight. Every unfelt emotion becomes a pathology, an addiction, or a neurosis. I'm trying to teach my family, my friends, and the world at large how to hold a wider range of their emotional experiences, and in order to do that, I have to keep practicing doing that myself. The extent that you feel your emotion is the extent [to which] you can develop yourself and actualize.
Follow Roc's latest project collecting dreams from around the globe at World Dream Atlas.