FIRST SYNTHESIZED IN 1912 -- A BYPRODUCT IN THE MANUFACTURE OF A DRUG TO SUPPRESS BLEEDING -- MDMA was little known until a former Dow Chemical researcher named Alexander Shulgin tried it himself in 1977. Shulgin had made his reputation, and made Dow millions, by inventing the first biodegradable pesticide. After that success, he was able to work on whatever he chose. He chose psychedelic drugs, based on a transforming experience he had with mescaline in the late 1950s. "I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit," he wrote. "We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability."
All of these studies are directly or indirectly funded by a surprisingly robust organization whose roots stretch back 40 years to the psychedelic movement of the 1960s. Before Harvard lecturer Timothy Leary started channeling aliens and urging college kids to turn on and drop out, an intense cadre of doctors and researchers had come to believe that psychedelic drugs would revolutionize psychiatry, providing those with a wide spectrum of psychological problems -- or even just ordinary life difficulties -- the ability to, basically, heal themselves.
But Leary's bizarre career, which morphed from doing research on psychedelics to cheerleading their widespread abuse, obscured whatever medical potential the drugs may have had. Instead, authorities focused on the risks, and often exaggerated them. Richard Nixon famously called Leary "the most dangerous man in America." After a slow start, regulators and legislators cracked down hard. Millions of dollars in enforcement efforts were unable to end abuse of psychedelic drugs, but they effectively stamped out sanctioned research into their healing potential.
A small group of psychedelic researchers and therapists willing to break the law continued their work clandestinely. A much larger group did not flout the law, but waited in the wings and is now emerging. Experience had convinced these therapists that psychedelics, along with significant risks, had potential for even more significant benefits.
This may have been especially true of MDMA.
The Peace Drug
Post-traumatic stress disorder had destroyed Donna Kilgore's life. Then experimental therapy with MDMA, a psychedelic drug better known as ecstasy, showed her a way out. Was it a fluke -- or the future?
By Tom Shroder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007; W12
THE BED IS TILTING!
Or the couch, or whatever. A futon. Slanted.
She hadn't noticed it before, but now she can't stop noticing. Like the princess and the pea.
By objective measure, the tilt is negligible, a fraction of an inch, but she can't be fooled by appearances, not with the sleep mask on. In her inner darkness, the slight tilt magnifies, and suddenly she feels as if she might slide off, and that idea makes her giggle.
"I feel really, really weird," she says. "Crooked!"
Donna Kilgore laughs, a high-pitched sound that contains both thrill and anxiety. That she feels anything at all, anything other than the weighty, oppressive numbness that has filled her for 11 years, is enough in itself to make her giddy.
But there is something more at work inside her, something growing from the little white capsule she swallowed just minutes ago. She's subject No. 1 in a historic experiment, the first U.S. government-sanctioned research in two decades into the potential of psychedelic drugs to treat psychiatric disorders. This 2004 session in the office of a Charleston, S.C., psychiatrist is being recorded on audiocassettes, which Donna will later hand to a journalist.
The tape reveals her reaction as she listens to the gentle piano music playing in her headphones. Behind her eyelids, movies begin to unreel. She tries to say what she sees: Cars careening down the wrong side of the road. Vivid images of her oldest daughter, then all three of her children. She's overcome with an all-consuming love, a love she thought she'd lost forever.
"Now I feel all warm and fuzzy," she announces. "I'm not nervous anymore."
"What level of distress do you feel right now?" a deeply mellow voice beside her asks.
Donna answers with a giggle. "I don't think I got the placebo," she says.
FOURTEEN YEARS AGO, Donna Kilgore was raped.
When the stranger at the door asked if her husband were home, she hesitated. Not long, but long enough. That was her mistake.
"That was it," Donna, 39 now, is saying. "He pushed in. I backed up and picked up a poker from the fireplace. I was screaming. He says, 'I've got a gun. If you cooperate, I won't kill you.' He unzipped his jacket and reached in. I thought, this is it. This is how I'm going to die. My life didn't flash before my eyes. I wasn't thinking about my daughter. Just that one cold, hard fact. I checked out. I could feel it, like hot molasses pouring all over my body. I went completely numb."
She dropped the poker.
Afterward, she stayed strong. She wasn't going to make the classic victim's mistake of blaming herself for provoking the attack. She had no doubts about that. She'd screamed and screamed until the police came through the door. (They later reported that her attacker jumped up, clutching for his pants, saying, "She said I could!")
And, bottom line, she'd survived. She'd be fine, she told herself. She was wrong.
"It was what it must feel like to have no soul," she says. She quit all her hobbies. A passion for tennis died. Devastating nightmares woke her in the dark, her heart racing and palms slick. She dreamed of explosions, tornadoes, bears eating people.
"Psychologists will tell you to go to your happy place," she says. "Well, my happy place had bears in it."
Five years passed. Whatever went wrong, or right, in her life, it felt like it was happening to someone else. She found a wonderful, loving man -- she could still recognize those qualities, even though she couldn't respond to them fully -- and remarried. She had more kids. But even her family felt alien. It was "almost like going overseas and being an exchange student, living with someone else's family . . . I didn't like being close to people, and my children didn't understand that. Mommy was always busy." She was often irritable, and felt an unaccountable anger, which sometimes morphed for no obvious reason into a heavy-breathing, sweat-streaming rage. Almost worse, she couldn't feel the love she knew surrounded her. "I was afraid it was gone -- when you look at your child and say, 'I would die for that child in a heartbeat,' I didn't feel it -- and I was afraid I would never get it back."
As she says this, she never breaks eye contact. Talking about her trauma and her treatment is a decision she's made, she says. "It's important." But it is also, obviously, hard, and she looks a little pale as she explains what it was like for those five years: "I would put my finger on my arm, and it would be like touching a dead body."
Incredibly, she didn't see a connection to the rape. Then, one evening, she was sitting on her couch watching a disaster show on TV -- she calls her interest in the genre "an addiction"-- when her apartment door opened. Something about the angle of it seemed odd. As she looked at the door, the room began to swirl. "It was kind of like a whirlwind, make-you-dizzy moment, and I saw the whole thing, that man pushing through the door, the warm molasses pouring down, my body going numb. I call it, 'when I left my body.'"
Now she understood: She had left her body -- and never come back.
The panic attacks began at work one Friday. She felt butterflies in her stomach, then couldn't breathe. "I thought: 'Oh my God, I'm dying. I'm having a heart attack.'"
It passed, but she was shaken, especially because she'd also been having fainting spells and migraine headaches. She went to a neurologist "sure they were going to find a brain tumor."
The doctor was getting ready to order an MRI scan when Donna just blurted it out: "Things don't feel real to me."