Medium: MDMA Helped Me Recover from War

Summary: MDMA-assisted psychotherapy study participant and veteran Jonathan Lubecky writes for Medium about overcoming PTSD in a study conducted by MAPS. “The MDMA is suppressing your fight-or-flight response in the amygdala, so you can address things that might otherwise make you panic. I talked about things I hadn’t talked about with anyone else before,” says Lubecky.

Originally appearing here.

I served in the military twice: first in the Marine Corps as a loadmaster on C-130s and C-9s from 1995 to 1999, and then as a sergeant in the Army. I deployed with my artillery unit to Iraq; we were there from October 2005 through October 2006.

My unit was on Balad Air Base, in the center of the Sunni Triangle, in the middle of the sectarian violence during Saddam’s trial. That was probably either the worst time in Iraq or second worst, after the initial invasion. The base got mortared so often it was known as Mortaritaville.

The base I was on had a concrete plant, and we needed a lot of gravel delivered. Every morning, there was a giant lineup of about 200 dump trucks waiting to get on the base and drop off gravel. One morning, we opened the gate for everyone to come in, but none of the trucks moved. So we sent out a team and went truck by truck, and every single person had been shot in the head.

That was a bad day.

In April 2006, I got blown up in a porta-john. A mortar landed and threw shrapnel through the walls while I was using the toilet in the middle of the night — I’m actually alive because I was tired and sat down to pee. All the shrapnel missed me, but I was knocked out for a little bit. That’s probably where my traumatic brain injury came from.

When I came home from the war, I watched every single person in my unit go to somebody — a parent, a child, a sibling, a girlfriend, a wife. My wife’s not there. I go out into the rain, turn on my cellphone for the first time in a year, and call her. There’s no answer. I end up having to take a taxi to my house, which is empty. My dog’s gone. My motorcycle’s gone. She apparently moved in with someone else two weeks earlier.

Christmas Eve 2006, I went to a bar that I frequented in Raleigh. I had two drinks and heard the church bells for midnight mass. I thought, “I don’t need to be in a bar on Christmas. I need to go there.” So I went to a Catholic church in downtown Raleigh, and they said, “We’re full, come back in the morning.” By this time, I’ve got tears streaming down my face. I’m like, “I just got back from Iraq. I really just need to go in there. I’ll stand in the back.” They’re like, “No, we’re full. The fire marshal will get us in trouble. Go away.”

So I went to sit on the war memorial on the state capitol grounds in downtown Raleigh for about an hour, coming up with new and inventive ways to end my life. The Army kept giving us briefings that said if you were thinking like this, you should go to the hospital. So I got in my car and drove to Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, and I told them, “I’m going to kill myself.”

They asked if I have guns. I said, “Yes, a lot.”

They said, “Do you have ammo for those guns?”

I said, “Yes, a lot.”

They said, “Okay, here are six Xanax. Don’t take them all at the same time because it’ll kill you. When you get home, give your guns to a neighbor and come back after the holiday.”

So I went back to my house, chugged a fifth of vodka, and loaded a Beretta nine millimeter. I put it to my temple and pulled the trigger. As the hammer fell, it was the most peace I had felt in my whole life. But it was a squib load — there wasn’t enough gunpowder in the bullet, so it didn’t go all the way down the barrel.

That was the first of five suicide attempts that should have been successful.

For eight years, that was my life. Every second of every day, I was either thinking of killing myself or planning to kill myself.

During that time, I tried exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, all kinds of antidepressants. Nothing worked. Employment-wise, I had been trying to do what I did before I deployed: transportation logistics. But that requires a lot of math ability and mental acuity that kind of got blown away in the porta-john. So I kept getting jobs and getting fired. Mental health issues didn’t help.

I started working on legislation to improve VA benefits, and I went to school at the Citadel to begin a political career. I met Rand Paul when he came to speak there, and he noticed the bandages on my wrists. He asked what happened, and I said, “Oh, a week ago I tried to kill myself and I cut my wrists.” He pulled me aside and said, “Forget I’m a senator. I’m also a doctor. I want to know what’s going on right now.” We talked for 20 minutes, and at the end of it, he gave me his right-hand man’s cellphone number and said, “If you ever feel that way again, I want you to call that phone number, and we will use the full weight of my office and the federal government to fix whatever problem you have.” (Two years later, I ended up working for his presidential campaign.)

I kept going to the VA. One day, I see an intern instead of my regular psychiatrist. She tells me, “Because I’m an intern and they quiz me on all this stuff, I’ve probably read your file more than anybody.” She slides a piece of paper across the desk and says, “I want you to open that when you leave the VA. I’m not supposed to tell you about that, so just stick it in your pocket.” We finish up the meeting, I walk outside, I pull out the note, and it says, “Google MDMA PTSD.”

So I did. Through the organization MAPS, I learned about a study using MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat PTSD. I ended up being a part of it. For me, it was three treatments from Thanksgiving 2014 to spring break 2015. Each time, in a house retrofitted as a medical center, I started with a dose of 125 milligrams, with a 62.5-milligram booster four hours in. I took the MDMA, and then I took part in a psychotherapy session.

It’s really hard to explain to people who have never done psychedelics what it’s like to do psychotherapy under psychedelics. It’s not just tripping on ecstasy, and it’s not just psychotherapy — it’s a synergistic effect between the two. It’s like going to a regular counseling session, except you’re being hugged by the person who you know loves you the most on this planet while being buried in fuzzy puppies licking your face.

In my first session, a big chunk of the beginning was just me going, “This is awesome.” Then the psychiatrists ask questions like, “So, what was the weather like in Iraq?” It’s the most innocuous question, but you start talking, and you keep talking. The MDMA is suppressing your fight-or-flight response in the amygdala, so you can address things that might otherwise make you panic. I talked about things I hadn’t talked about with anyone else before.

And it fixed me.

I had my last treatment in 2015. One year following the study, my PTSD symptoms were dramatically reduced — I do still technically have PTSD. Depression was reduced by 60 percent, and suicidal ideation went away. Before my treatment, I was on 42 pills a day at one point. Now I take Concerta so I can concentrate and Ambien so I can sleep.

PTSD is a kind of
like autism: It’s a spectrum. Some people can deal with it by going to church or the gym. There are people for whom a Zoloft a day will keep the doctor away. Then there are people like me. The VA says that for 30 percent of people with PTSD, they have no effective treatment.

We need options. Right now there’s just a cookie-cutter mold of PTSD treatment, and if you fall outside that mold, you live your life in misery. That’s what I did for eight years. I’m angry that I have friends still in misery who don’t have access to this treatment. I’m angry I had to wait eight years to get it.

Veterans are strong — we can survive three years of hell if we know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The problem is a lot of veterans don’t see that light, so they choose the only freedom they know, and that’s a bullet to the head.