The party drug is synonymous with rave culture, but an ambitious clinical study could prove it has an extraordinary power to treat PTSD
For as long as Alice, now 32, can remember, her father, a major drug dealer with freezers full of cocaine, was physically abusive towards her and her mother. My first memory is of him backing us to the front door with a gun, saying hed kill her, kill me and kill himself one day.
Alices post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a debilitating mental condition that can be caused by experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, went misdiagnosed for many years. The panic attacks, body shakes, nightmares and insomnia took their toll, while doctors treated her for depression and anxiety. There were many triggers: physical contact, being alone, showering, seeing someone who resembled a family member, loud sounds, even a red baseball cap the kind her father wore. He and his friends also sexually abused her on numerous occasions. The disorder imprisoned Alice; she couldnt answer the phone or go to the shops on her own. I would get triggered by something and Id shake or shiver, she says.
Over the years, she tried talking therapy, somatic therapy, and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), in which a therapist moves his or her fingers left and right in front of a patients face as they recount their trauma (the eye movements seem to dampen the memories). Nothing worked.
Then, two and a half years ago, Alice enrolled in a clinical trial for a treatment combining psychotherapy with MDMA, near her home town of Erie, Colorado. She took 125mg of the drug, the same dose a clubber might take recreationally, three times over the course of 12 weeks. Her trips were accompanied by eight-hour therapy sessions. I sat on a comfy couch and my therapist gave me a pill in a little handmade ceramic cup, she says. It had a ritualistic feel to it. I was terrified the first time. Having taken the capsule, Alice was given an eye mask and headphones, and lay back listening to drum music until the drug, which shed never taken before, kicked in.
The MDMA just pulls things out of you, she says now. It supports you. You can start looking at all your experiences and how they are affecting you. There were times when I just sat up and started talking. Or Id cry. Or there were moments of re-enactment. Physically, I felt like my whole body was vibrating for a while.
During the session, her psychiatrist guided the conversation according to goals she had set with Alice beforehand. I had the first few minutes of peace Ive had in years, Alice says, though the sessions werent all plain sailing. Some parts were wonderful and others were kind of hellacious. I was super-sad and couldnt stop crying. It was not just an automatic love drug. But I was always able to come back to feeling good.
Alices recovery was astonishing. The gold-standard assessment tool for this kind of trauma is the clinician-administered PTSD scale, or Caps, which uses a lengthy questionnaire to determine the severity of a patients symptoms (sample question: have there been times when you felt emotionally numb or had trouble experiencing feelings like love or happiness?). Any score over 60 is severe. Alices score went from 106 to two. Its now at zero. In other words, her PTSD is gone.
Alice is one of 136 patients who have undergone MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in trials run by the not-for-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (Maps), based in Santa Cruz, California. Maps was founded in 1986 by Rick Doblin, then a trainee therapist, and now an effervescent 62-year-old who has dedicated his life to studying the medical uses of psychedelic drugs, including psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and marijuana. Its taken 30 years to get to this point, he says. Ive always known MDMA would work, but its been really gratifying to see such tremendous results. He has studies nearing completion in Vancouver, Colorado, South Carolina and Israel, with plans for more in Australia.
Doblin and his colleagues want to make the drug a prescription medicine. It is currently listed as a Schedule 1 substance by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and a Class A drug by the Home Office in the UK, along with heroin, cocaine and LSD. So far, the Maps studies have been relatively small, but the results are encouraging. One South Carolina study involved 20 patients, mostly victims of sexual abuse, who had suffered from PTSD for more than 19 years. It was a placebo-controlled study, so all patients were given the same therapy, but only some were given the MDMA; 83% of those given the MDMA no longer met the criteria for PTSD following treatment, compared with 25% of those who were not given the drug. Best of all? The results have held for several years.