MAPS Bulletin Spring 2018: Vol. 28, No. 1
If you’ve heard of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treating posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you’ve probably also heard that a huge percentage of those who’ve tried it reach full recovery. But what about the people who don’t—people like me?
I’m a middle-aged woman with complex trauma and treatment-resistant PTSD. Diagnoses aside, I am a seemingly normal high-functioning human being who survived rather horrific childhood abuse, sexual and otherwise.
Like it or not, these things from my past impact my present day. At various times in my adult life, I’ve struggled with unhealthy relationships, addiction, sudden emotional swings, episodes of depression and suicidal ideation, avoidance behaviors, poor posture from a lifetime of shame, chronic migraines, and digestive problems. The hardest to live with by far has been the flashbacks, which can happen at any time including while I’m driving, shopping, or at work. Flashbacks are more than just memories. Traumatic flashbacks are times when I experience events from my childhood as if they are happening in the present. Even this might not sound that bad really—after all, my childhood is over and I do know that. But traumatic flashbacks are much worse than you can possibly imagine if you’ve never had one. These flashbacks are fresh experiences of terror, happening in the here and now as if I am that helpless child with nowhere to go and no safe person to turn to. There is no way out, and there will be no help.
When I heard of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, I had already lived through more than nine years of flashbacks and trauma processing, interspersed with several plateaus where I inevitably thought, “This time, for sure, I’m fully healed!” I had tried every treatment I could find—things like craniosacral, acupuncture, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE), various energy healing techniques, and trauma-informed therapy and support groups. Most things helped a little, but nothing provided the kind of relief I hoped for.
When I first tried MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, I was on the verge of a new wave of flashbacks around the single most terrifying event of my childhood—an event so unbearably soul-killing, painful, and lonely that I know if I had to go through these flashbacks the “old-fashioned” way, I would have committed suicide. Period.
So, I sought out something drastically different. Make no mistake about it: PTSD can be as life threatening as cancer. I read up on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in the way someone with a terminal illness might latch on to some new promising cure. The research was ongoing, but for me the results were already strong enough to offer me hope.
When the morning of my first session arrived, I had to drag myself out of the house. Of course I rationally wanted to do this, but I also felt the dread of not wanting to go into the awful things that would surely come up. Knowing my other option was to let flashbacks come up randomly, with no support, I made it to the therapy room. I am no stranger to therapists’ couches, so once there I settled in. This was set up differently—so I could lie down with covers and get cozy if I wanted to.
I recognized and appreciated the care taken to convey that I was in charge—that this treatment was not being put on me, but rather was chosen by me, and that I could also change my mind at any time, and know that that too would be honored. My therapist handed me the bowl with the medicine, and I took it of my own free will.
Trauma doesn’t heal in a linear fashion. It circles around in tighter and tighter circles, throwing up one buried unbearable emotion at a time, starting with terror and shame. At least, that’s been my experience. Analyzing my experience is what I do. It’s what I’ve always done. Since childhood, analyzing has been my #1 survival strategy, because when I analyze something I create distance between myself and that thing. The result? I’m pretty good at analyzing, and sometimes I’ve lived at a safe distance from my own life.
There’s no way I could describe a full MDMA-assisted psychotherapy session in a linear fashion. What I wish to offer here are a few snippets of the sessions, in imperfect order. Each session was a container for a multitude of healing experiences. It would take a book to try to share them all.
I lay down, pulled a blanket over myself, and noticed the music. Music has such a beautiful way of eliciting emotion and is a key element of the sessions, in a way I appreciate but don’t fully comprehend. I’ve always loved the way the lyrics or even the pure emotion of a song have the power to offer me companionship—a kind of empathy that transcends time and space.
It wasn’t long before a young version of myself—the one who bore the brunt of my childhood pain, spoke up loud and clear. This was not imagined or contrived, but simply organic and genuine. The words seemed to be spoken in a younger version of my own voice. These words revealed numerous sad faulty beliefs that had been embedded in my psyche since childhood. The words that came also revealed the pain of being left behind and pushed away by present-day me—who really just wanted to move on and “get over it” (which, by the way is the #1 most unhelpful thing to suggest to an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse).
The words I spoke the most often in that first session were directed towards my therapist. Perhaps I should be ashamed to share those words here. But truthfully, I’m more ashamed to live in a world where children who are molested are shamed rather than protected or supported. So, I will share the words that came:
“And you don’t want to have sex with me?!”
Okay, so let me get this straight: Someone is being really exceptionally nice to me, and (thanks to MDMA-assisted psychotherapy) I’m letting that niceness sink in to my being, and they don’t want to have sex with me in return?! But why else would they be that nice to me?! My young self was terribly confused by this.
No wonder I could never let kindness in. Before the session I had not been consciously aware that I had such a deep association between kindness and being sexually manipulated. These words came tentatively at first, and then eventually I asked the question with more confidence and even joy. “And you don’t want to have sex with me!” My inner child was delighted by this revelation. Thankfully I was on a therapist’s sofa, and not in a nightclub.
There is a heaviness that descends on my body and mind in my deepest trauma, when I was left for dead as a child. My body assumed the position I was in back then. My jaw started shaking like a wind-up toy that’s been wound up well beyond its capacity, and it’s now letting it all go. My arms and legs moved to escape. My therapist pushes against me so that my muscles could do what they were trying to do—reliving the movements from decades earlier. I faded in and out of conscious awareness as my jaw continued shaking at breakneck speed, beginning to release all that had been pent up in me. My therapist held my hand through the whole thing, and every time I flickered my eyes open, she was there, with kind attention. I could feel her attentive presence. I was no longer alone in this. Hours seemed to pass in this way.
I had brought a water bottle and a rehydration drink with me to the session, but they ran out. My therapist offered and then delivered to me a glass of water. It seemed to me as though her intentions of kindness and care flavored the water. I felt myself literally drinking in her care along with the water. This “care water” tasted even better than my own water had, and my therapist happily brought me as much as I wanted. All I had to do was ask, and there was more care water. I felt as though I was learning to ask for and receive care in an entirely new way.
A song began to play that I didn’t like. It grated on my nerves. I asked to skip the song, feeling good in the moment about exercising my free choice. My therapist made a note. I don’t recall her words, but I made my own mental note of how curious this was—as though not wanting to hear some piece of music indicated there was something within me that I also did not want to hear.
The time came to leave the session. I felt quite fine. Lighter and happier in body and spirit. It was early evening and I felt tired and relieved. Mild confusion set in because although I’ve grown accustomed to paying for therapy, something new had been given to me, something money can’t buy.
I had a vision, as though I was walking along the edge of a cliff. My path was smooth and beautiful, blue skies and sunshine, ambling onwards. Down below off the edge of the cliff to my left I could see the low shadows of the path I hadn’t taken. It looked rocky down there, and I could see from above that it soon hit a dead end. I felt blessed to no longer be on that path.
Side effects I noticed: smiles and gratitude. And probably best not to drive for a day or so.
So, what do I really think about MDMA-assisted psychotherapy? MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is light years ahead of every other current approach to healing trauma. That is what I think. And here’s why.
MDMA-assisted psychotherapy helped me:
1. Process trauma more quickly, so that I could start to get my life back now. In just a couple eight-hour sessions I processed through what I could feel would have taken me many years to resolve.
2. Do the work of healing without feeling overwhelmed. During each session I could work with deep trauma with a clarity of mind that allowed me to stay present without being flooded by terror, despair, and other intense emotions.
3. Suspend the part of me that avoided going into the pain. I could approach what I needed to work on without fighting myself.
4. Feel with certainty that PTSD was neither a failure of my willpower nor a sign of weak character. My fear response was simply stuck doing what it does best—keeping me alive. Feeling this helped me shift from shame to self-appreciation.
5. Stay present during all subsequent flashbacks. The single most terrifying aspect of my flashbacks had always been that I would be 100% in the past, with no sense of present safety. After my very first session, this seems to have permanently changed. I still have flashbacks, but my present-day self who knows I survived and knows I have resources gets to stay present as a grounding self-witness.
6. Feel empowered to heal on my terms. There is a huge difference between making an appointment for a dedicated day to work on my trauma with skilled help, versus having random intrusive flashbacks. The latter often left me feeling just as powerless as I had been during the original trauma.
7. Feel how strong my body is, and always has been. I couldn’t believe how much trauma and suppressed startle responses released from my body during the sessions. No wonder I would get tired so easily—it clearly took a lot of energy to hold all that in!
8. Experience what it could feel like to not have my body be constantly “on guard” for the next threat. I wasn’t aware that I had been walking around with my eyes popped out and my hips shot forward. After the sessions, my body held on to a new memory of what normal could feel like, which continues to help me remain more aware of my body.
9. Receive care from another human being without feeling triggered. As someone who was abused by “caregivers,” I had learned that things like relationships, feeling safe, and receiving care were sure signs of danger. So how could I make progress when the basic things I needed in order to heal were themselves trauma triggers? MDMA-assisted psychotherapy helped me bypass my conditioned fear and make relatively effortless progress on this previously impossible piece.
10. Allow “inner child” parts of myself to be seen and heard. These are the parts that had gotten locked away in my psyche, along with all the traumatic experiences, unprocessed emotions, and basic needs that I had no hope of meeting as a child. In other words, all the things in me that needed healing were given voice and a safe space to come forward in a way I’d never before experienced.
If it’s so amazing, then why do I still have PTSD? Yes, I still have PTSD after a couple sessions, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t benefit immensely. I did. And my work isn’t over. My life keeps getting better, and then sometimes it gets worse again. The difference is that I have felt true support in my being, and I have felt healing happen rapidly. The music serves as a reminder.
In the time following my treatment, I married a man who also deeply appreciates the emotional power of music. I’m able to be more present and open with my daughter. Sometimes I’m able to focus solely on things that are important to me in the present day. And sometimes, still, I can’t.
I continue to have traumatic flashbacks, but they are fundamentally different than before. I call them “lucid flashbacks” —because as with lucid dreaming, I have some present moment awareness, and can even exert some control or reach out for support while they are happening. This wasn’t possible for me before.
I still have a lot of trauma releasing from my body. After the sessions it’s harder to stay at a healing plateau than it used to be, which sometimes is a blessing and sometimes a curse. I know I could be continuing to heal faster if I had access to more sessions. But I don’t crave this in the way I would have craved a drug when I struggled with addiction. I feel grateful for the sessions I had, grateful to still be alive, and grateful to the people behind MAPS for working to make this treatment widely available. I’ve been through so much trauma, and I have felt so frustrated trying to heal. I’m not unique. There are so many people, including fellow survivors of childhood sexual abuse, who could benefit from this treatment.
Other trauma treatment modalities gave me hard-won baby steps towards healing; MDMA-assisted psychotherapy gave me an empowering rocket ride with me in the driver’s seat —still doing the work—but finally a vehicle capable of supporting me in getting where I want to go.
Healing doesn’t have to be so hard.
Kristina Cizmar Eklund works as an analyst at a university, teaches Emotion Yoga, and offers workshops on working with shame. View more of her story at healingcsa.org/the-film. She can be reached at kristina@healingCSA.org.