MDMA Goes Mainstream

Last Saturday at Acre Petaluma, over iced coffees and salmon toast, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Jim Matto-Shepard, psychologist, psychotherapist and licensed Soul Motion Conscious Dance teacher. 

We discussed the properties and benefits of MDMA—a hot topic at the moment, as the DEA and FDA have begun to ease back on restrictions around the drug’s medical use, and we enter a sort of MDMA renaissance.

MDMA, also known as Ecstasy or Molly, was first developed in 1912 by German chemist Anton Kollisch, as a parent compound to a drug intended to control bleeding during medical procedures. Its psychedelic properties weren’t explored until the 1970s and early ’80s, when psychiatrists began to notice an enhanced capacity for communication in their patients who were under the influence of the drug.

At this time MDMA also became more common at parties and other recreational settings, and in 1985, despite numerous testimonies from psychiatrists and psychoanalysts—including Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research (MAPS), who has spear-headed MDMA legalization and treatment—the DEA declared an emergency ban on the substance. MDMA is a Schedule 1 drug, meaning a substance with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

But circumstances are beginning to change. And this is where my conversation with Dr. Jim Matto-Shepard took off.

Matto-Shepard is one of the founders of Temenos Center for Integrative Psychotherapy in Petaluma. Temenos offers psychedelic assisted psychotherapy to people suffering from depression, PTSD and other psychological issues. In early 2020 Temenos was one of nine clinics in the country selected to do Expanded Access work with MDMA. Developed by Dr. Doblin and the staff of researchers, scientists and psychiatrists at MAPS, the Expanded Access program allows for the legal use and study of MDMA, as a treatment for patients suffering from PTSD who have been unresponsive to other forms of treatment. Since this approval, and in the wake of Covid, Temenos is gearing up to take referrals.

You may be wondering what “temenos” means. It’s a Greek word which refers to a piece of land dedicated to sacred use. Matto-Shepard and his colleagues chose it because the clinic provides a safe, sacred space in which to begin and fortify lasting trauma resolution and psychological evolution in its patients. The use of psychedelics—in this case, MDMA, though the clinic also works with ketamine—allows for a state of brain function from which the patient can engage with circumstances and memories negatively impacting their life, from an observational and self-empathetic space. Matto-Shepard explained the neurodynamics of an MDMA dose to me in this way:

“Essentially, the medicine calms the amygdala, which is your brain’s fight-or-flight center. A traumatized person essentially lives in the amygdala, in a perpetual state of fight or flight. It’s a crippling experience. So, MDMA quiets the amygdala, while amplifying the communication between the hippocampus, your memory and emotional regulation center, and your neocortex, where your brain processes language and general function. All this while increasing the production and release of oxytocin, often referred to as the ‘love hormone,’ which produces empathy, trust and indeed, love.”

From this brain state, a person can safely observe and analyze their circumstances, and begin to observe and resolve harmful neurological patterns. They put their brain into a state which allows them to begin rewriting its system of functioning. A great book on neurodynamics, by the way, is The Neuropsychology of Grace by Charlotte Tomaino, which affords amazing and super-digestible insight into brain function.

Matto-Shepard was quick to emphasize that the medicine itself is not the cure, but the thing that enables the patient to assess their state and address the immediate needs. From this place, they are then able to implement lasting change in their lives. I offered the analogy of shining a light into a closet that needs to be cleaned out, which he liked, but after our conversation I thought of a better example. MDMA works in the way that an anesthetic does: calming the brain enough to enable the reopening of an infected wound. Once opened and sterilized, the wound begins to heal itself, being now in optimal condition to do so.

MDMA, unlike most contemporary legal antidepressants, is not meant to be used perpetually. It is administered once-to-a-handful of times, in a moderated setting, in order to optimize neurological function. Once this process is initiated, like the healing wound, the brain works on its own, and patients need only assist the process, with the same TLC they would give a scraped knee or a broken arm. We know how to heal, but we still need the cast and the care, and MDMA allows the brain to move into that mode of function. No longer fighting or freezing, we can start actually being.

This MDMA revitalization is almost entirely thanks to MAPS. Doblin has advocated for the legalization and right to administer MDMA since the DEA-declared emergency ban in 1985. It’s taken 36 years, but clinics like Temenos—for a full list, visit the MAPS website—do finally have their green light to begin legally working with patients who fit the DEA outlined profile. At this point in legality only the aforementioned PTSD patient profile, unresponsive to all other treatment, qualifies for MDMA treatment, but hopefully within the next five to 10 years, MDMA-assisted therapy will become available to those of us experiencing other forms of acute and developmental trauma, without us having to first go through other, potentially less effective and certainly longer-term, avenues. Frankly, I hope this treatment will soon be available to everyone who feels called to participate in it.

Matto-Shepard and I also discussed my personal experiences with MDMA, of which I’ve had two.

The first time I used anything like MDMA I was 17 years old. It wasn’t pure—we called it Thizz. I had a boyfriend at the time who, one evening, asked if I wanted to try some. It came in the form of a little red pill with an alien face impressed upon it. I stared at that face for nearly 20 minutes before someone knocked loudly on the bathroom door—I was at a coffee shop. Without another thought, I popped it into my mouth and swallowed it.

It was an exceptional night. As the drug took hold, I remember my vision seeming to expand, my peripheral sight becoming sharper. The textures of clothing, the feeling of skin, the very act of drawing breath, felt better. I felt calmer than I had in a long time, and when I looked in the mirror, I saw a playful, joyful version of myself looking back at me. Everyone seemed illuminated, and I felt an expansive sense of love.

But I was looking for excitement and new experiences, not engaging with the drug to resolve my trauma in any conscious way. Though the experience was overall intriguing and pleasurable, it ended at 5am with a headache that rivaled the birth of Athena—right out of Zeus’ skull. This, I suppose, is the risk you run when a semi-suspect guy you’re dating hands you a red, alien-faced pill. But hey, I wouldn’t trade in the experience.

That was in 2009. Fast forward 10 years. At 27 I was living in upstate New York, having just graduated from Bard College. I’d developed a close relationship with a family whose children I took care of, and their mother, an amazing woman I’ll call Margaret, was a huge proponent of MDMA. Margaret and her husband often took it to aid them in working through relationship challenges. Matto-Shepard, by the way, is particularly interested in developing MDMA treatments geared toward couples. As I packed to move across the country to California, Margaret gave me a double dose, pressed into a little blue pill—insert Matrix reference—straight from Amsterdam. Take it when you’re ready, she said. You’re going to love it.

I drove across the U.S. with that little blue pill, scored to split, in a small cigar box next to some Picasso projector slides and a perfume bottle from my grandmother. It became another treasure, loaded with story and sentiment, but I didn’t know when I would ever take it, or if I ever would.

I’m not opposed to drug use—though I was raised with the “Just Say No” mantra, I was generally open to the experiences of LSD, mushrooms and marijuana. LSD in particular, which I took in New Mexico with a very dear friend, brought me to a level of emotional awareness and receptivity that shapes me to this day. But my experience with Thizz hadn’t left me feeling anything I felt the need to revisit; my recollection of the headache alone was enough to turn me off from future use. Even though I knew what Margaret had given me was different, I didn’t feel compelled to explore its effects.

On my extended migration to California I stopped back in New Mexico for almost a year, and one evening found myself at a birthday party out in Tesque. It was hosted in a beautiful, small adobe, nestled in those inimitable New Mexican mountains veined with quartz and magic. Under a dome-sky turning fuchsia and lavender, and filled with sparkling stars, I pulled up, the cigar box still in the trunk of my car.

My friend Prince—not the rockstar, sadly—was there. Prince was really the only person I would consider doing MDMA with at the time, and somehow it came up in conversation that there was a little blue pill in the vicinity.

“Let’s do it!” Prince said, his eyes and smile wide and sweet. Margaret’s voice echoed in my mind: Take it when you’re ready. I went to the car, opened up the trunk and took the pill out of the cigar box. We looked into each other’s eyes, promised to have a wonderful time, cut it and ate it, and then Prince began telling a story. 

People I didn’t know, and people I did, stood around the kitchen island as he wove his narrative, illustrating with his hands and emphasizing with his shoulders and eyebrows.

As I stood listening, chiming in, laughing, I felt something begin to swell inside of me. A wave began building, sweet and strong, becoming stronger and stronger. I felt it gathering momentum, and I took a deep breath. Suddenly it broke—

I was flooded.

I felt, for two or three minutes, utterly miraculous. I was entirely alive and entirely at peace.

Then, something changed.

 A  voice entered my head, and rang clearly through the sensation.

This isn’t real, it said. This sensation of peace is externally induced. You’re not actually this content, Jane. 

A wave of frustration swept through me. It wasn’t sharp or acute, but I felt anger. Something was off. I looked around, and took a brief assessment of my situation: I was in a beautiful house, yes. I was with people I loved, yes. But it was almost midnight, and I knew I’d be awake through the morning. People were smoking cigarettes, drinking Fireball, railing lines of cocaine and lying in various states of incapacitation. I don’t want to be here, I realized. This isn’t who I want to be.

I’d been actively trying to break away from a certain lifestyle—this lifestyle—for the last four years. Throughout college I’d practised crossfit, yoga, meditation, good nutrition, sleeping eight hours a night—fighting to get away from the destructive nihilism and ennui that liberal arts colleges can perpetuate, and working to restructure my social circle towards people who desired the same kind of physical, mental and emotional health. I wanted a life that allowed for natural serotonin and oxytocin production; a life lived outside of a hyperactive amygdala which left me in a constant state of running or fighting. I’d transferred schools in search of it, studied somatic therapy and Zen Buddhism, and written my thesis on the psychology of divinity; I was endeavoring to build my life on pillars of physical, mental and spiritual excellence. Yet, my old patterns kept returning, triggered by one thing or another, and I would find myself lost again, as though sleepwalking, living behaviors that weren’t serving me.

Usually, becoming aware of this filled me with panic and vicious self-judgment. My feelings of weakness and shame around struggling to liberate myself from bad habits built on pain from my youth were often as crippling as the habits themselves. It was a Catch-22. Try, fail, shame myself for failing, fail again. We all know some version of this utterly ineffective cycle.

At that moment, while at a party in Tesuque, New Mexico, on an MDMA pill from New York via Amsterdam, I was able, for maybe the first time in my life, to observe without being hijacked by emotion, my own habits and practices. I was able, without being thrown into the hyperactive amygdala state, to witness myself.

I was able to construct clear directives with myself like, Jane, you don’t want to be here. You love these people, but they’re not part of your life anymore. Jane, you’re a different person than you thought you were, and these habits are coming from a place of pain, not a true part of your identity. Jane, babe, you know what you need to do, you’ve been doing it. Just keep at it, girl.

I was able to calmly, peacefully, witness the things in my life that were not calm or peaceful. Two years almost to the day after this experience, the circumstances of my life are as I had always prayed they would be. I sleep well, eat well, study and cultivate my spiritual and mental health. I am reconciled with past trauma, and I experience that very sense of natural joy I desired so clearly that night in Tesuque.

I’ve always thought of that night as a turning point in my development, but until my conversation with Matto-Shepard, I wasn’t aware of the degree to which MDMA assisted in that shift. Having the neurological language to explain and understand my experience only increases my amazement and gratitude. If I had such a beneficial experience alone and unguided, I can only marvel at what a clinically administered and professionally guided session can offer patients, and I see no reason why such treatment should not be available to the population at large. 

As of 2019, the MAPS success rate in the treatment of PTSD was 68% at the one-year mark, meaning these men and women are no longer diagnosable with PTSD. This research and treatment could bring about a new way of being with one another in the world.

As Dr. Stanislav Grof—a Czech-born psychiatrist and mentor to Doblin—said, “Psychedelics are to the human consciousness what the microscope is to biology and the telescope is to astronomy.”

We all remember how people responded to Galileo when he posited the universe was not, in fact, geocentric. But he was on to something, wasn’t he? It might be a tough pill to swallow—pun absolutely intended—but we owe it to each other, and to the world at large, to continue exploring the frontiers of psychological wellness.
To learn more about Temenos and Dr. Matto-Shepard, visit temenos.center.

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