Summary: Refinery29 speaks to couples about how the therapeutic use of MDMA has helped them solve relationship problems. The article highlights MAPS’ new study researching MDMA-assisted Cognitive-Behavioral Conjoint Therapy for dyads in which one member has PTSD. “What a gift to our relationship,” explains James. “It’s not a magic bullet. It’s how you integrate what you learn into your life.”
Joe and Stacey tell me that if we’re to Skype about their use of MDMA it has to be between 8am and 10am, after the kids leave for school and before 34-year-old Stacey leaves for her senior post at the medical school of her local university. Like everyone I spoke to for this article, they believe friends and colleagues would be shocked to know they regularly take one of Britain’s most highly classified illegal drugs on date night, but are also keen to impress how helpful they’ve found it to their relationship. “We call it our biannual marriage fire-up,” says Joe.
Joe is ex-army and since his last tour in Afghanistan had been struggling to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a civilian, he was always on the lookout for people carrying guns or the risk of a bomb going off. He was anxious and barely slept. He found everyday interactions with people difficult. One day, after a spell of obsessively thinking about the past, and six weeks of talking therapy and no improvement, Stacey told him, “We need a new way of dealing with this.” With a career in medical literature and a nurse for a mum, Stacey was confident she could find a way through, and began to read about medical trials where MDMA was given to people with PTSD.
Convinced they needed to explore this route, Stacey had difficulty getting her hands on the actual substance. “It took a long time between our initial interest and finding a source of the stuff. Turns out even my shadiest friends didn’t know where to get it. After a pleading post to an online forum about where to find a safe source, someone took pity on me and sent some helpful information, which led to us basically mail-ordering it as a powder.” The first two times they took it were “amazingly profound,” said Joe. “We’d been married nine years and talking to each other is a huge component of our relationship. But now we suddenly had new subjects to talk about and assumptions to be questioned.”
MDMA, which can be taken as a powder or pill, is also sold under the names Molly and ecstasy (among others). It’s a synthetic psychoactive drug, which triggers parts of the brain linked with happiness and euphoria, and boosts energy levels. It also boosts empathy. In the United States, the drug was used legally in a therapeutic context for decades, including within couples therapy, until it crossed over into club culture and, in 1985, during the Reagan-era “War on Drugs” was made an illegal Schedule 1 drug. Here in the UK, it’s classified as a Class A drug alongside the likes of cocaine and heroin, but is still widely taken for recreational purposes.
Katie Anderson is a British doctoral researcher in applied sciences at London South Bank University. She’s completing a PHD called “Navigating intimacy with ecstasy” and has spent much of the last two years speaking to couples who use MDMA as part of their relationship toolkit. After previously researching MDMA users she was keen to pursue the idea that some of its key effects, like openness and empathy, establish the right conditions for building a strong relationship. “It’s an intense, euphoric feeling shared with someone else, and that’s a powerful bonding experience,” Anderson told me. She began her qualitative research in 2015. The first stage involved interviewing 10 couples aged between 24 and 60 who had taken MDMA together five times or more, to hear how the experiences influenced their relationships. The second stage involved diaries in the weeks after taking a planned MDMA “roll”.
Anderson is in the final stages of analysing her research and aims to complete the doctorate next year but in the meantime has released some findings from this qualitative research. She has termed the world that her couples entered into when on the drug the “MDMA bubble”. Respondents talked about it being a safe space where they knew anything they said would be accepted. Couples disclosed sexual fantasies, the pain of losing a parent or being estranged from close family. One couple went so far as to confess they’d both had an affair.
“I think we keep ourselves protected, we don’t want to get hurt. But when you’re taking the drug, it allows you to take down those walls and just be open to somebody,” respondent Mark said. His partner Jenny agreed: “Sometimes it can be hard in your day-to-day life just to carve out a period of time to let you talk about stuff that’s hard to talk about.” In fact, most of the men who Anderson studied reported that it had freed them to be more emotional, both in the MDMA bubble and in everyday life. Joe recalls a conversation that has since changed the way in which he and Stacey relate to each other. “We drilled down on the origin of phrases that caused self-doubt in me and belittled her. I learned how to express myself better so I don’t hurt her.”
The disclosure of sexual insecurities was a common theme. James is 41, married with two children and initially started using MDMA three years ago to try and break down his defensiveness, which he believes is related to his physically abusive childhood. A friend of his took him out to a forest with two other guys and administered the drug, and after that he asked his wife if they could take it together. James felt that his sex drive was higher than his wife’s and that the periods where she didn’t want intercourse were driving a wedge between them. “You get to crystallise the issue. It was powerful for me to say it and powerful for her to hear it.” He told me that it had changed their intimacy. “I had to not feel anything when I was growing up. Feelings were dangerous to express.” He felt the MDMA had been transformative: “What a gift to our relationship.”
Beyond research like Anderson’s into the use of MDMA on a personal level, a body of work is also being carried out in the United States to understand how pure, laboratory-controlled psychoactive drugs could be used for therapy. The US Drug Enforcement Agency recently approved a study by the non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) on the use of MDMA to treat PTSD; it’s widely believed that by 2021 doctors will be able to prescribe MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for people with the condition.
However, in the UK, a massive stigma remains. Anderson told me that the positive aspects of otherwise recreational drugs are “massively under-researched” through lack of funding. Academics Dr. Ben Sessa (University of Bristol) and ex-government drugs advisor Professor David Nutt (Imperial College) have written that MDMA was made illegal by “single-minded politicians” in order to prevent an epidemic of people “writhing on the dance floor.” This led to its therapeutic benefits being overlooked and it posing needless dangers to those who buy it illegally. On the street, it can be cut with harmful substances. It also affects the body’s temperature controls, so people need to be aware of how much water to drink.
All the couples I spoke to were aware of the risks of taking MDMA, and armed themselves with information to make their experiences as safe as possible. “We plan a roll weeks to months in advance, making sure we’ll have lots of time to enjoy it and to recover. Sometimes we get a hotel room for the event and sometimes we wait until the kids are out of town and do it at our house. We generally take around 200mg as a single dose, although we’ve played with several dosing schemes, including taking a smaller starting dose and ‘bumping’ with another small one after a few hours to stay ‘up’ a little longer,” Stacey told me
of her and Joe’s MDMA vacations.
The couple also researched what to take afterwards. MDMA works by releasing large amounts of the brain chemical serotonin from certain brain cells. This is what causes MDMA’s mood-elevation effect but, in releasing large amounts of serotonin, MDMA also depletes the brain’s supply and it takes a few days to replenish what was released. That period is often referred to as a comedown. “We ended up with a big list of health supplements that we take before, during and after to help negate some of the more distressing side-effects and make sure our minds are well protected. These include antioxidants, magnesium supplements and serotonin precursors,” Stacey explained.
Anderson hopes that her research may one day contribute to MDMA being taken more seriously by the UK medical establishment: “It makes your emotions clearer. It enhances positive emotions and reduces negative ones and this is why MDMA is good for psychotherapy.” Unlike other Class A drugs, MDMA is widely held to be non-addictive in its chemical make-up. Professor Nutt, who was sacked from his position as a government advisor in 2009 for stating that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than many illegal drugs, continues to campaign for closer research into the therapeutic benefits of MDMA and other drugs that have, over time, been rebranded as purely recreational and with high risk attached. “We don’t ban morphine for people in pain. So why don’t we do exactly the same thing for psychedelics and MDMA?” he told The Huffington Post.
Couples told me that the option of taking MDMA to bring them closer together was important to them but that the subsequent improvements in their relationships meant that, actually, they didn’t feel they needed to continue taking it. Recently, Stacey and Joe realised it’d been nearly four months since they last used MDMA but decided they didn’t need to plan for the next one. They feel using the drug has torn down the barriers between them so they can talk more freely when sober. It was a view shared by James: “It’s not a magic bullet. It’s how you integrate what you learn into your life. Now we say, ‘What is this really about?’