Mercury News: Ayelet Waldman: How LSD Micro-Dosing Saved My Sanity and Marriage


Originally appearing here.

On the morning Ayelet Waldman took her first a dose of LSD, her keyboard didn’t explode into psychedelic fireworks, nor did she transcend her body to float up and out and become one with the universe.

The ‘micro-dose’ she slipped under her tongue was only 10 micrograms – a 10th of the usual recreational hit. Still, the effects were ever-so-slightly perceptible and almost immediate, a gentle lift in mood and in her awareness of things around her. “On a walk around my neighborhood, I noticed the beauty of my neighborhood, the trees and flowers, the smell of jasmine,” she recalled.

Most important for Waldman, her experimental use of this illegal psychedelic gave her something she had been desperately seeking for months: relief from a crippling depression that had left her feeling suicidal.

“For the first time in so long, I feel happy,” she said. “Not giddy or out of control, just at ease with myself and the world.”

So begins Waldman’s latest book, “A Really Good Day” (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95) which publishes today . In it, the 52-year-old author recounts taking a small dose of LSD every three days for a month – a program that’s called “micro-dosing.” The regimen comes from James Fadiman, a Menlo Park-based psychologist who conducted pioneering studies on using psychedelics to boost creativity in Silicon Valley scientists and engineers in the mid-1960s.

Each day, Waldman recorded the effects on her mood, her writing and her relationships with her husband, author Michael Chabon, and their four children, ages 13 to 22. While Waldman only tried the regimen for a month, she was impressed enough with the results to write a book.

As a former federal public defender and drug law reform advocate — and as a someone who has struggled for years to find relief from debilitating mood swings — Waldman argues that U.S. prohibitions on psychedelics should be lifted so that people can have access to potentially life-saving relief from depression, PTSD and addiction.

Without the ban, researchers could develop prescription forms of LSD and other psychedelics that could potentially work better than today’s current crop of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications, she says. Unlike those legal drugs, psychedelics haven’t been shown so far to cause serious short- or long-term side effects when used in safe amounts.

While doctors prescribe any number of treatments for mental illness and mood disorders that are either problematic or no better than placebos, she notes, “The one drug that I have found helps me I am forbidden to take.”

Waldman’s book is both a comprehensive history of the myths and realities surrounding LSD and a memoir of her lifelong search for that “most seductive and really elusive thing: a really good day.”

That Waldman has spent much of her life battling despair and self-loathing may come as a surprise to anyone who’s met her at a book reading or in the living room of her spacious craftsman-style home in Berkeley. Friendly, witty, outgoing, the Harvard Law grad is one half of one of America’s premier literary couples. She’s written acclaimed fiction and non-fiction, while Chabon is both a Pulitzer Prize-winner and, by her accounts, a loving and extremely supportive partner and father.

Despite her achievements, she has spent hundreds of hours in the offices of psychiatrists, psychologists and alternative healers, looking for help for recurring bouts of depression, mania and irritability that have plagued her for as long as she can remember. And, the list of drugs she has tried with only middling success takes up half a page in her book.

For a time, she was treated for bipolar disorder until a UC-San Francisco ob-gyn confirmed that her mood swings had to do with monthly hormonal fluctuations.

With a diagnosis of premenstrual dysphoric disorder – a severe form of PMS — Waldman enjoyed about five years of relative peace by taking an SSRI precisely timed to certain days of her menstrual cycle. But that regimen stopped working when she entered peri-menopause and her menstrual cycles became less regular.

“I was suicidal, and if I didn’t try something I was afraid that I would either kill myself, or make my life not worth living,” she said. “I would have either driven away my husband or left him myself out some (sacrificial) gesture.”

That’s when she read up on LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). As she recounts in her book, LSD was discovered in the late 1930s, developed for psychiatric purposes in the 1940s, then employed by the CIA for mind control experiments. In the 1960s, heroes of the counterculture – Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, the Beatles and the Grateful Dead — embraced the practice of dropping acid, viewing it as a great way to party and as the path to a higher consciousness.

But LSD’s glory days came to an end after news stories circulated of “LSD psychosis,” with young people on bad acid trips being rushed to emergency rooms. TV host Art Linkletter became an anti-drug activist after his 20-year-old daughter jumped out a six-floor window; he blamed her suicide on an LSD flashback.

In 1970, the U.S. government exiled LSD and other psychedelics to the Schedule 1 category of dangerous, illegal substances with no known medical value. Also consigned to this category were psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, and later MDMA, or Ecstasy.

But U.S. prohibitions have begun to loosen in recent years, in part after some of the some of the 20th century’s most famous innovators admitted their own debt to psychedelics. Steve Jobs called LSD “one of the two or three most important things” he had ever experienced, and Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson experimented with LSD in the 1950s and believed it could help chronic alcoholics find a path to sobriety.

Recent studies from Johns Hopkins, the nonprofit, Santa Cruz-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and other institutions, have produced “extremely high praise” from the scientific community, according to Fadiman. Participants, usually taking a psychedelic in combination with intense psychotherapy, have overcome PTSD and addiction to cocaine or have found relief from depression while facing terminal illness.

Micro-dosing has not been the subject of officially sanctioned research because it’s self-administered, said Fadiman. He has nonetheless collected reports from more than 120 people who say that the program has given them a sense of “joy and gratitude,” along with increased focus and better mood. A few stopped using because they didn’t enjoy it, he added.

In recent years, magazine stories have chronicled the popularity of micro-dosing among Silicon Valley tech workers and busy working women hoping to improve everyday neural functioning so that they can be more efficient and creative.

Waldman says while she never used drugs recreationally, she was open to the idea of skirting the law to ingest a potentially therapeutic substance. She had found relief from shoulder pain through medical cannabis, and she and Chabon used Ecstasy several times to enhance communication during couples therapy. But, given LSD’s reputation, she feared having a bad trip -– or of getting arrested and investigated by child protective services.

Her supply came by way of an acquaintance when one day a package arrived in her mail box containing a small bottle. After using a mail-order testing kit to confirm the contents of the bottle in fact contained LSD, Waldman was set.

During that month, she said that, yes, she wrote much more than usual, perhaps because the LSD lessened her tendency to procrastinat
e. Her kids told her she seemed “happier, more chill” while her husband said she was able to more quickly “reset” her mood in times of conflict.

Waldman acknowledges that the LSD didn’t make her feel 100 percent better, and the initial euphoria from the first day dissipated. If nothing else, the micro-dosing lifted her out of her suicidal despair long enough to help her realize that life, in fact, could get better.

That reset, in and of itself, could have been all she needed to move forward. Certainly, she hasn’t been back to that very dark place since, a respite that has helped save her marriage. “We were at the brink of disaster,” she says.

Unfortunately, she says, she’s not on LSD anymore — because her secret supply ran out and she doesn’t know where to buy more. But she’d go back on it in a heartbeat if she could.

“Hopefully, they’ll decriminalize it and do a micro-dosing study and I can keep taking it,” she said.

LSD and micro-dosing: benefits, safety

It’s been more than 40 years since LSD landed on Schedule 1 of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, labeled as dangerous and illegal. But in the decades since, studies have shown LSD is not addictive and no more dangerous than cannabis, writes Ayelet Waldman in her book “A Really Good Day.”

“Contrary to what the vast majority of people probably believe, LSD is, as drugs go, safe,” said Waldman.

Studies suggest that the late-1960s panic about LSD psychosis probably involved people who had prior histories of psychiatric illness. Waldman also cited a 2008 study that showed there had been “no documented human deaths from an LSD overdose.” And, she questions whether several violent episodes in Santa Cruz County over the past year were actually caused by people ingesting LSD or some other street drug.

Of course, no drug comes with a “biological free lunch,” as one source told Waldman. The thing is, barring more research, no one knows for sure how LSD rewires the brain in the short- or long-term.

As for micro-dosing, its risks could be less than taking some of the current anti-depressants, say advocates of psychedelic research.

Micro-dosing involves taking a 10th of the typical recreational dose of LSD or of psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms. That low dose means a user shouldn’t suffer hallucinations, traumatic experiences or other adverse side effects. The potential benefits of micro-dosing include improved mood and focus and more energy, creativity and emotional clarity.

“Someone taking a dose this low functions, as far as the world is concerned, a little better than normal,” writes James Fadiman, a Palo Alto-based psychedelic researcher in his 2011 book, “The Psychedelic Explorer Guide: Safe, Therapeutic and Sacred Journeys.”

Under a protocol developed by Fadiman, users take a dose every three days, with the two days off designed to prevent people from building up a tolerance to LSD.

Over the past five years, Fadiman has sent out micro-dosing instructions to hundreds of people who are able to obtain LSD or psilocybin on their own.

In his unofficial “crowd-sourcing” version of a clinical study, Fadiman has asked them to report back. An “overwhelming” majority of the more than 120 who responded report positive experiences. Only a few said they didn’t enjoy their experience, and Fadiman discouraged them from continuing.

Fadiman is optimistic about the prospect for more formal studies: “The acceptance of psychedelics and micro-dosing as safe and effective will continue.”

For more information about Fadiman’s work on psychedelics and his protocol visit his website at