Here's What MDMA Did for My Anxiety That Meds Couldn't
"I don’t have an opinion on what anyone else should do, but numbing the fear was not the answer for me."
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I was 17 when I was first prescribed Prozac for anxiety. I had an eating disorder at the time, and a psychiatrist thought it might reduce my self-starvation and self-induced vomiting. It didn’t do much, and I ended up a year later in residential treatment, where a psychiatrist increased my dosage.
That’s when I started feeling the effects—both wanted and unwanted. I began making enough progress with my eating disorder recovery to leave treatment and go to college. But I also got really tired all the time despite sleeping ten hours a night, and always felt like my brain was in a fog. The bad times weren’t as bad, but the good times weren’t as good. A new psychiatrist switched me to Zoloft, but I felt no difference.
When I was 24, I went off Zoloft almost accidentally. I’d moved to a new city and didn’t find a new psychiatrist in time to get it refilled. Once I got through a few days without it, I decided to see if I could make it longer. Mental health professionals don’t recommend this; they recommend tapering off gradually—and I can see why. I was constantly irritable. But I also felt more energetic, more alert, more awake, and more alive. I didn’t want to go back.
A lot changed during those first few months off Zoloft. My abundance of energy led me to get involved in everything from rock climbing to psychology classes. My newfound angst helped me realize I wasn’t satisfied with my 9 to 5 office job, which marked the beginning of my writing career. Within six months, I’d become a full-time freelance writer, amazing people by writing an absurd number of articles (my record is 18 in one day), often taking two or three remote jobs with the exact same hours and working so quickly nobody knew my attention was divided. I thrived off this challenge, fueled by a frantic fear of not living up to my potential. My anxiety was my secret weapon, I realized. It came from the same source as my drive.
The flip side of this energy surge was that I was getting increasingly obsessive. Within two years of going off meds, I was compulsively working more than 15 hours a day, saving money to the point of foregoing meals and doctors’ appointments, and making myself throw up almost daily. Behind my facade of perfection and success, I secretly prayed something would save me from myself, but I didn’t know what could.
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I’ll be forever grateful that around that time, I was invited on a work trip to the music festival EDC Vegas, where a new friend casually mentioned that she had molly. I’d recently read about a small but impressive study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, which found that 83 percent of PTSD patients who received MDMA-assisted therapy were symptom-free after a year. I also read that studies were underway to treat social anxiety and the anxiety associated with life-threatening illnesses using MDMA.
My knowledge of MDMA’s therapeutic potential sparked my curiosity, and I asked my new friend if I could try it. On a rooftop overlooking the festival, she put a small amount in my hand (I don’t know how much, but she deemed it a “microdose”), and I felt it almost immediately. That night became my own unsupervised therapy session of sorts as I explained to her that workaholism, disordered eating, and compulsive saving were all the same: ways to feel good about myself. In that moment, though, I had self-esteem without any of those things. I saw I didn’t need them.
The next day, I dropped a client that had been mistreating me and decided to use my newfound free time to join a friend on a trip to Ibiza. On my first night there, I took my first non-micro dose of MDMA in the form of half an ecstasy pill. With confidence I didn’t normally possess, I approached the guy who’s now my boyfriend, and I spent the rest of the trip with him. On the plane ride home—my serotonin levels likely still elevated from rolling three nights in a row—I had an epiphany: All the perceived limitations in my life were self-imposed. I decided there and then to leave my New York apartment, travel, and pursue this new love interest, despite the fact that he lived in Germany.
I didn’t use MDMA again for the rest of the summer, but it was as if the effects remained. I still worked a ton—but out of enthusiasm rather than nervousness—and the work was punctuated with travel, dates, and adventures. I began spending money on myself, and I stopped making myself throw up. While SSRIs had decreased the overall intensity of my emotions, my experience with MDMA had preserved the intensity of my fear and shame—but added equally intense excitement and happiness.
It’s not unusual for a single psychedelic experience to have long-lasting effects on someone with anxiety, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. “Psychedelics tend to take the brain's default network offline, which allows for a reset in the pattern of neurological activations of specific nodes and networks,” he explains. Or, to put it in more understandable terms, “Think of an old record vinyl. Think of the needle being stuck on one track and playing one tune. Psychedelics lift off the stylus and put it back down so it can play other tunes.”
Over the course of the following two years, I used MDMA a few more times and gained similar benefits from magic mushrooms and ayahuasca. I should mention that this wasn’t at all a risk-free decision. Overuse or misuse of MDMA can lead to sleep problems, urinary problems, and in severe cases, cognitive impairment. Overdosing on psychedelics can put you at risk for serotonin syndrome, and long-term overuse of hallucinogens can lead to trip flashbacks. You can also do dangerous things when you’re under the influence of a drug, since you may lose touch with reality.
In the clinical settings where psychedelics are being tested for therapeutic use, these risks are lower because the drugs’ dose and purity, along with your environment, are controlled. Unfortunately, these settings weren’t accessible to me, and like many people, I took risks to gain the mental health benefits of these substances.
And the benefits felt plentiful. Psychedelics put me in touch with a more compassionate, open-hearted side of myself that I’d muted over the years. Before discovering them, I didn’t even know I had that side. I was narrowly focused on success and money, and looked out for myself above all else. It was on ayahuasca that I realized this attitude came from fear—and that this fear came from societal and familial influences. I realized I was not born anxious. Separating my anxiety from myself has helped me not give into it.
This is another way psychedelics may help some people with anxiety: by making unconscious thoughts and feelings conscious so that we can see what thought patterns are standing in our way, says Giordano. “Once you reset the default network and you begin to engage a distinct pattern of cognition, that pattern can also be somewhat more receptive and responsive to certain aspects of emotion that were not being processed on the conscious level.”
Life inside my head isn't always easy. But ultimately I saw myself faced with two options: Numbing the fear, or building up the joy and love that are even greater than the fear. I don’t have an opinion on what anyone else should do, but numbing the fear was not the answer for me—because I ended up numbing everything else along with it.
If I’d never found psychedelics, I probably would have either remained trapped within my own compulsions, driven by fear of inadequacy, or gone back to medication that muted these feelings without really addressing their roots. I would have stayed asleep. Now, I’m awake. To everything. The good and the bad. And I want to feel it all.
This article originally appeared on Tonic.