For as long as I can remember, I was terrified of spiders. Seeing one would hijack my attention and nothing else in the world mattered until the spider was dealt with. I’ve never had a traumatic event that initiated my arachnophobia; rather, it seemed like it had been innate. It was manageable only in the sense that if there wasn’t a spider, there wasn’t a problem. Otherwise, an encounter with one was so frightening that when it was over, my vigilance and sense of touch would still be hyperactive several minutes after. When other people were around, the experience would leave me embarrassed as they had witnessed my reactive display over something relatively harmless and avoidable. I once kept my ex-girlfriend up from sleeping until she could deal with a spider that was just hanging out in her bedroom blinds. The prospect of a family trip to visit the Amazon gave me serious doubts about whether I could go, out of fear that I would constantly be running into spiders. I even considered doing exposure therapy to help lessen the severity of the phobia before the trip. But the idea of dampening my fear response over time by gradually increasing triggering stimuli didn’t sit well with me at all. After seriously considering opting out, I did ultimately go to the Amazon and luckily only encountered a few spiders. Yet, the tool of exposure therapy did end up curing me of my arachnophobia by taking MDMA. It helped me to be in the presence of spiders without activating my fight-or-flight response and to integrate that experience to effectively eradicate the phobia, all in a single Saturday.
In the spring of 2018, I decided to try MDMA. I went in with the intention of exploring the effects of MDMA on the quality of my mind and my thoughts. I chose to have my experience during late morning out in an open meadow overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Cruz, California. I went in with an open mind and curiosity (spiders far from my mind). After ingesting the tablet, I wandered about for an hour before settling down on an exposed rock shelf. Sitting crossed-legged with the wild California poppies forming a ring about me, I began admiring the lichen-speckled stones beneath me. I found myself entranced by rhythmic waves of orange petals with the incoming seabreeze. It was then when I noticed a grin on my face. How did it get there? Was I thinking of anything in particular that put it there? Within that moment I realized my mind seemed to be at total equanimity with the world.
Trepidations about daily concerns slipped away like one trying to recall a dream shortly after waking up. The concerns of how I saw myself, especially through the eyes of others, were no longer there. But what remained after the self-conscious narrator vanished completely was this energetic sense of pure love and compassion for everything. It was in that moment that the lens of my mind shifted away from the default setting of the continual percolation of everyday thoughts, and refocused outward to the rest of the world. In that moment, a profound and revelatory insight came to me about what I was currently experiencing. It felt like for the first time in my life, I was truly in the present moment. Everything is right here and right now. I repeated this out loud while feeling completely astounded by the obviousness of the mantra. The insight was not intellectual but rather of visceral experience. I was astounded that a state of consciousness like this was even possible. I stood up from the bodhi stone and began running through the fields of poppies and verdant grass.
There seemed to be no shortage of empathy and affection that I was able to feel. Wherever my attention was directed, love and compassion were sent in copious amounts to my friends, my family, and my girlfriend, to the sensation of breathing, the warm touch of the sun, and the muscles that enable me to run, to the trees, the sky, and the birds that flew overhead. It was then when I stopped and looked to the grass directly below. There I noticed in each patch of grass sat a small dark spider no more than a couple of centimeters in size. Everywhere I looked, these spiders surrounded me. Immediately I sensed something within me missing. I wasn’t afraid. I bent my knees to get a closer look and saw that a few of them were carrying egg sacs on their abdomens. And for the first time in my life I saw these spiders for what they were, just other living beings getting by in this world. The veil of fear and ugliness that all spiders carried was gone. In fact, I felt love for them and saw their beauty. They were not excluded from the boundless love I was sending. I came in closer but they swiftly scurried away to safety. I realized that I must have appeared as a looming figure to them, causing them to flee. I rose and backed away, returning the spiders their space. I thanked them for the experience and apologized for the intrusion. I left the serendipitous encounter with the spiders amazed, never had I ever catalogued an experience without having to endure sheer terror in the presence of even a single spider. My MDMA experience carried on for another 3 to 4 hours as I meandered back into Santa Cruz.
By the time I got home, I returned to baseline while retaining this intense afterglow of mental relaxation and excitement over what transpired earlier that day. I reflected upon each experience in the field. By the time I thought about my encounter with the spiders, I realized my phobic condition of them hadn’t returned yet. While it was true that the effects of MDMA was responsible for silencing my arachnophobia out in the meadows, I was not sure if this would persist well after the MDMA wore off. I reasoned that if that was the case, then I might be in this shrinking window of opportunity in which I could work on mitigating the return of my phobia. I decided that this was an opportunity to conduct exposure therapy on myself. I went back outside and began scavenging around my house for any spider (non-venomous of course) to recruit for my self administered exposure therapy. It was just my luck that I seemed unable to find any at all. As I was struggling to find a spider, two boys who were my next door neighbors, ages 7 and 9, grew curious and asked what I was looking for. I told them the truth which was that I simply was looking for a spider because I didn’t think I was afraid of them anymore and wanted to check to be sure that was still the case. Their interest was piqued and quickly they asked if they could help with my search. I gladly welcomed their efforts. The boys’ mom walked up to see what was going on. While my two volunteers were completely engrossed in the hunt, I told the mom all that had happened earlier that day, the drug, the open field, and the spiders. The story astounded her and immediately she volunteered to help. Eventually, alongside the driveway we all found a small spider hanging out on a shrub. I carefully caught the spider and let it run across the palm of my hand. For the first time in my life I was holding a spider in my own hands and not an iota of fear present. I was transferring the spider between my hands, the mom took a photo, recording evidence of what any arachnophobe would certainly call a miracle.
After a few minutes had passed, I returned the spider back to its branch. I wanted to find another. I needed a bigger challenge. Instantly, the local exotic pet shop came to mind. There was one within a 15 minute walk from the house. I told the boys and their mom my new game plan. I was going to hold a tarantula. I walked out of the driveway and as soon as I turned the first street corner I began running. Zigzagging through my neighborhood, I felt ecstatic at the thought of what I was about to do. I was running toward a spider this time. After turning the last corner, I slowed to a walking pace to catch my breath. I walked into the store looking to see where the tarantulas were kept. An employee popped out from the back and after asking her if they had any, she led me to the only terrarium with what I was looking for. In it was a pink toe tarantula. I asked her if it was alright if I could hold it in my hand. She warned me that making any sudden motion would frighten the spider and it would jump. I didn’t divulge my arachnophobia, afraid that she wouldn’t think it wise for me to do this. However, I was absolutely confident that I could do it. I wanted to do it.
It’s been a year and a half since that Saturday out in the meadows and I’m still free of the phobia that plagued the first 26 years of my life. I can look at them now suspended up on their webs. I can place a cup over a spider and carry it outside on my own. I can be relaxed and not have to pay any attention if one has taken up residence in the ceiling corner of my room.
It didn’t take long after my transformation to wonder what it was that MDMA was responsible for. The Internet quickly led me to MAPS’s website, laying out all current research on psychedelic substances that they are funding. There I came across the on-going research on the assessment of MDMA as a treatment for PTSD. Neuropharmacologist Allison Feduccia and psychiatrist Michael Mithoefer published a review article in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry detailing the potential mechanisms of action under MDMA therapy. They propose that brain regions responsible for fear and anxiety, the amygdala and the insula, are reduced in activity while an increase in connectivity is occurring between the amygdala and the hippocampus. They say that these changes in brain activity brought on by MDMA “may allow for reprocessing of traumatic memories and emotional engagement with therapeutic processes” . While all this is in the context of the MDMA trials for PTSD, it seems the successful cure of my phobia fits well within the framework of the authors’ hypothesis. This gives me hope that the promise MDMA provides for those who are suffering from PTSD, can eventually be extended to those with phobias as well.
(I would like to thank Katelyn, Ali, and Wade for all of their feedback on my story. Thank You!)
 Feduccia, A.A., and Mithoefer, M.C. “MDMA-Assisted Therapy for PTSD: Are Memory Reconsolidation and Fear Extinction Underlying Mechanisms?” Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, vol. 84, 2018, pp. 221–228., doi:10.1016/j.pnpbp.2018.03.003.