Being Present for the Journey: Experiences of MDMA-Assisted Therapy

MAPS Bulletin Spring 2017: Vol. 27, No. 1 – Special Edition: Psychedelic Science

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Karen Diamond

John Saul

Karen Diamond and John Saul were both participants in MAPS-sponsored studies. Here they share their personal stories of what brought them to our studies and how their lives have changed in the months following their MDMA-assisted psychotherapy experience.


Karen Diamond was a subject in MAPS’ study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Boulder, Colorado.

I was born to heroin-addicted parents who divorced when I was two. Beginning around age 5, I was repeatedly molested by neighbors. At age seven, my father committed suicide and at 12 my mother followed suit. I came home from school and found her in bed. From 13–39, I used nicotine, marijuana, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, and pills to manage my emotional pain and PTSD symptoms. After having my first child at 27, I started decades of therapy and tried a myriad of antidepressants. I have worked hard on myself to create a good life. But even with a loving husband of 32 years, two amazing children, and now a grandson, I just wasn’t able to enjoy it. This is what motivated me to try MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.

Here’s an excerpt from a letter I wrote to my friends and family after the first session.

It’s like doing years of therapy in one day. It’s not scary, I never felt out of control, and didn’t feel ‘high.’ Though there was a bit of visual vividness when I opened my eyes, and I did have these metaphorical ‘visions’ in my mind while lying there feeling deeply connected to the music, everything was always in my control. If I started to see something I didn’t want to look at I could (and did) easily move away from it. For me, that was the sexual abuse. And I will be revisiting that for sure.

The great thing is that I was able to take the principles that I have intellectually known after decades of therapy, and make a huge gut connection that feels permanent…in part due to the medicine, and partially due to the gentle and supportive way the therapists were with me on the journey. It’s like a big AHA!  moment happens and is reinforced by the medicine and the therapy style. What I experienced during the active treatment, is what I always kind of knew, but what I now not only KNOW, but BELIEVE.  AMAZING!

The core of that for me is that I felt broken and unworthy. Now know I am whole and worthy. All the things that happened still happened, but I was not broken. And the things that happened to me had nothing to do with me. And dammit—I made it! A beautiful bud on a strong stem, some outer leaves crushed and bruised, but still able to bloom. : )

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a totally instantaneous process, it will take some continued work on my part to rewire my reactions to things. But it feels so doable, and I can only imagine how much more I will get out of the remaining two sessions.

As I mentioned in my letter, MDMA didn’t create hallucinations, but more something I would call “felt metaphors”—a way of seeing events and feeling emotions with a new perspective that allowed me to explore the traumatic events and the impact they had on me in a way that I was unable to do with traditional therapy and antidepressant drugs.

MDMA-assisted psychotherapy helped me to see my parents and sexual perpetrators as their own people on their own journey with their own issues. To realize that the ways in which they were not there for me, were not capable of being there for me, the ways in which they were horrible to me and could not control their behaviors, had nothing to do with me—that it wasn’t personal—not so much to forgive them, but to let go of them, to move on.

Karen Diamond and her grandson, Miles, enjoy a ritual of watching trains together. “When he hears he whistle he tells me and we run around like crazy getting our shoes on and into his car seat and drive the few blocks to try to catch it as it goes by. We manage to see it about half the time, but we enjoy the whole process even when we’ve just missed it.”

Since finishing treatment over a year ago, I don’t wake up dreading each day. Overall I’m feeling happier, more secure, and able to enjoy my life. I’m experiencing fewer intrusive thoughts, and a reduced startle reflex. Even when I get frightened, the adrenaline doesn’t spike through my body like it used to. No more waking up at night in a sweat with my heart pounding. Less need to try to control everything—my kids, my husband, holidays. It’s easier to make decisions and I have less anxiety. When it does come up I can face it, instead of trying to repress and avoid it. I don’t hate myself anymore, a.k.a., I love myself.

I just turned 60, and I still have a lot of things I am working on changing, and other things I’m learning to accept as they are about myself. But what stands out is my dramatically increased ability to enjoy my life, figuring out who I am, what I like and don’t like, without the PTSD ruling my moods and behaviors. Here’s to enjoying and being present for my journey through the next 30+ years!

Karen Diamond was born in Stafford Springs, Connecticut, and has lived in Colorado since 1976; it’s home. Her work history runs the gamut from restaurant work to sign language interpreting to running art shows. Currently she owns her own business selling a unique product for women called the P-Mate. Family is everything to Karen, so fortunately, her two children and grandson live close. Her current goal in life is to find and release her inner artist. “I know she’s in there and she’s beginning to find her way out.”

John Saul was a subject in MAPS’ study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety associated with life-threatening illness in Marin, California.

It’s several months before I discovered the MAPS-sponsored study. I watch yet another capsule of expensive medicine skitter across the floor. It escapes under a heavy piece of furniture. “I give up,” I say to myself. This has become routine. My disease, systemic sclerosis, also known as “scleroderma” has all but paralyzed my fingers and made them slick as hard plastic.

Every morning as I awake, I hope to find that the last 950 days have been a bad dream, but it’s never the case. I take 20 minutes to force a decision: “Get. Out. Of. Bed.” I do it. I’
m skinnier than the day before, but I feel like 400 lbs. I feel arthritic, stiff, feverish. Like I’ve got the flu, every day. I feel toxic, like I’ve bathed in pesticide. My skin crawls and burns. My feet and hands pound as the blood forces through the capillaries. My heart skips and slams for a few beats, I’m short of breath. Fatigue drags me toward the floor. My inner voice says, “I can’t do it. Just let me sleep.” I email two clients to reschedule. The office will have to stay quiet today. My business is hemorrhaging money.

“Oh, it’s 9:45 am. Time for a little warm-cozy.” I break the 10 mg Percocet in half and chew it down with a glass of water. I pocket another 10 mg for the afternoon. 10 minutes later, I change my mind and get ready to go into the office. “Maybe I am getting better.” I am fooled by the opiate, but it’s doing its job.

So went my life and my business for three and a half years, circling the drain. “I will never feel the high of a hard trail run. I won’t enjoy my body feeling strong after a week of weight lifting and yoga. I’ll never sail my boat again. My friends have stopped the invitations and written me off. Another 51 degree day, but I can’t feel my feet. My hands are white. I can’t move them.” Suicide stops by for a visit: “Hey, man. Let’s go for a walk in the woods. It’ll do you some good.”

That’s the shape I was in when I unfolded the San Francisco Chronicle and saw the article, ”Ecstasy therapy approved for trial in Marin County.” Some weeks later, Dr. Phil Wolfson said, “John, you certainly qualify for the study. You’ll have to produce a clean urine test. That means no opiates. Here is a tapering schedule.” When I got home, it was 3:30 pm. “Well, the last one went down at 9:00 am. That’s it. I’m not putting another one in my mouth.” I put the remaining pills on a shelf in plain view. I knew I had picked a big fight. I had tapped the core of my personal will.

It was a foregone conclusion: the FDA-approved study, sponsored by MAPS and titled: “MDMA assisted psychotherapy for anxiety associated with life-threatening illness” was going to be one of the major waypoints in my life. The scientists will get their measures, and I am going to pivot my entire life on this experience. It was fact, and I was finished with the opiates. They had done their job. The ensuing five weeks of opiate-withdrawal is its own story. It was hard. My will prevailed, motivated by the “carrot” of knowing that I will ingest a generous dose of a powerful psychoactive compound in a comfortable, safe place with two of the best, most experienced, compassionate, and capable healers on the planet. And, hopefully, I will reclaim my life.

January 7, 2016: Adventures wake me up and stop time. Second MDMA-assisted psychotherapy session: one of the best days of my life. This day of work on the couch was a level up: Advanced Intermediate.

This time, as compared to my first session, I demanded more of myself to think, write notes, and prepare. I set intentions. I re-read my notes: “Check your commitment to the truth.” I asked more of myself in terms of committing to the work. I asked more from the medicine. I asked specific things from my compassionate healers, and in turn, they asked more from me. Then, they gave more of themselves than I could ever have imagined. I popped the tab and said to the medicine: “Get in there. Go to town.” The memories of the day take my breath away.

John Saul, shown here on his therapeutic yoga swing, became certified to teach aerial yoga after participating in the MAPS study, and is currently pursuing certification in traditional Iyengar yoga instruction.

It wasn’t too long before I noticed that objects in the room were vying for attention and admiration. Plants, paintings and musical instruments seemed busy and brimmed with personality.

My healer-guides allowed me to soak in it. Their faces said, “We love you, and we know.” “Settle-down. Go inside for awhile.” I settled into the couch, got warm, drifted inside my head, and slowly turned the pages of the picture book, forward and backwards.

The compassionate healers were in it with me. In addition to guiding me, calling on me to do the work, and keeping me comfortable and safe, they were “on the road” with me for the day, helping me to find and observe Truths in my life. The communication lines were wide open.

Then it was time to do some work. A gentle but firm shoulder urged me there. “That” topic again. Let’s lift the curtain and look at it again, except there is no curtain. It’s floating and slowly rotating right in front of me. “It’s Ok. Look at it.” It is clear and detailed. It is real and without interference. “You see?” “Yes.” “You know?” “Yes, I know.”

We talk about the most uncomfortable things, yet I feel something beyond comfort. Beauty radiates from sadness. I witness raw emotion, like I grabbed a live power-line and watched it arc into my body. Awestruck. I felt something beyond compassion, beyond humility. I felt gratitude and love on a different scale. “This is some real learning,” I thought. In my head and in my heart, a huge iceberg of sorrow, grief, disappointment and anxiety cracked off and began to drift away. Throughout the day, 18 years of whatever lacked in my upbringing was gently placed into my heart. Then, over the next 72 hours, it catalyzed in there, right where it belongs.

It’s been one year since concluding my part in the study. Through many different means, I am physically about 90% better than as described earlier. A large part of improving physically is to make gains emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, especially when living with an incurable, life-threatening illness.

When you get your “internal house” in order, learn to entertain only the Truth in your thoughts, learn the medicinal value of crying, learn to tap into the gigantic pool of empathy that exists as counterpoint to the loneliness, fear and anger that is the human condition, your life changes for the better.

My involvement in the MAPS-sponsored study was the pivotal event that helped me get in touch with this and reclaim my life. The study enabled me to wake up, pause, and tap into Love and Courage. I run on trails, beaches, and I do half-marathons again. I became certified to teach aerial yoga, and I enjoy a new line of work in answer to a calling to help others. I still drop pills onto the floor on a daily basis but they are vitamins, not opiates.

John Saul is a 52-year-old ex-jock from Los Angeles. He competed in NCAA division-1 wrestling at CSU, Fullerton. He has lived in: Pasadena, California; Frankfurt, Germany; Sausalito, California; and now lives in Venice, California where he runs miles on the dry sand. A diagnosis of a life-threatening illness in 2012 prompted him to shift gears and answer a calling to help others by developing tools and resources for people knocked down by life-threatening or life-altering chronic illness. He also enjoys teaching a popular therapeutic modality: aerial yoga. He is currently pursuing certification in traditional Iyengar yoga.