The Fix: How MDMA Helped One Veteran Overcome his PTSD

The Fix interviews veteran Tony Macie about his experiences with war, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Macie explains how he became involved as a participant in MAPS’ clinical trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, and explains the differences between traditional PTSD treatments and psychedelic therapy. “The memories are still there but the MDMA therapy taught me not to push them away but to think about why they are coming up and consider why this is happening,”explains Macie. “It gave me my life back.”

Originally appearing here:

Veteran Tony Macie tells The Fix how controlled use of MDMA has helped with his post-traumatic stress disorder.

I first met Tony Macie in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at my friend’s birthday dinner. He was there setting up Expert Exchange, a nonprofit that helps army veterans volunteer abroad. He was a taciturn presence at the end of the table; not saying much. It wasn’t until the meal was over and the guests were beginning to drift out into the pouring tropical rain that I got to chat with him. Macie has been to places physically and emotionally that would curdle your blood. It seems Stephen Hawking was right when he said, “Quiet people have the loudest minds.”  

Macie was a sergeant in the US Army. At the height of the Iraq war, he was a forward observer—responsible for directing artillery fire and aviation strikes. Over a 15-month tour, he witnessed horrors that would see him returned home on a medical discharge, numb and broken. Diagnosed with “treatment resistant” PTSD—he became addicted to drugs and alcohol as he struggled to cope with the transition back to civilian life. But while some drugs made things worse, it was another drug, an illegal one no less, that facilitated a healing process that helped him overcome PTSD and the addictive behaviors clustered around it. 

Where are you from?

I grew up in a small town in southeast Vermont. It was a peaceful, normal upbringing. 

How did you come to join the army?

I joined straight out of high school when I was 18. Both my grandpa and father had served and it was not long after 9/11 so I felt that I had a responsibility to take part in the war. My family didn’t want me to go—my dad was in Vietnam so he knew what war was about—but they still supported my decision. 

What were the details of your deployment?

I went to Iraq for 15 months in 2006/7. I was in southeast Baghdad. I was attached to a reconnaissance unit and my job was to call in artillery or aviation if we got into a firefight. Basically, I told them where to shoot. 

What was your experience of war?

For the first two months nothing really happened. But then I saw someone get hit with an IED and I was like, OK, this is real. Six months into it, a truck full of explosives was driven into our control base and detonated. I was first responder and saw so much blood and injuries. After that, I just became numb—it was the only way I could function in the uncertain chaos. 

How was the transition back home difficult?

I was given a medical discharge in 2008 because I injured my back. The rest of my unit were redeployed to Afghanistan and I felt I was letting them down. So I went home for a couple of weeks and then tried going to college. Coming from a war zone into a college environment was a huge transition. I felt like I didn’t fit in and my life experience was completely different.  

When did you first realize you had PTSD?

The army did a screener when I returned and diagnosed me with it. They offered me antidepressants and directed me to the Department of Veterans Affairs. But despite the medication, I was having panic attacks and couldn’t sleep. I ended up drinking a fifth of vodka every night just to try and rest. That went on for three months until I went to a psychiatrist who put me on pills: Ambien, Xanax, Percocet and Oxycontin.

What were the symptoms like?

The panic attacks made me feel extremely out of control like my mind was racing and I couldn’t control my body. I had survivor’s guilt. I would think about those people who died or had lost limbs and how I’m still walking and fine. Every time I tried to sleep, I would constantly revisit events that happened and role play how I could have changed it. Intimate social relations were impossible for me. 

Did you become addicted to the pills?

I was definitely addicted. I would go through withdrawal if I didn’t have them for a day. My life in those days was a blur. I think it was worse on my friends and family. They had to cope with it more than me because I was numb. 

How did you get into the MDMA trial?

I was going to school in South Carolina [Clemson, pre-med] and I saw there was a trial of MDMA-Assisted Therapy at the Medical University of Charleston. I decided to sign up. I had to fill out a bunch of psychological examinations, they checked my heart and medical records. There was a lot of process but I managed to get in.

Had you experienced MDMA before?

No, never.

Were you scared?

Yes, I was very scared. The doctor and nurse explained everything to me and tried to put me at ease but it didn’t help because, due to the PTSD, I didn’t trust anyone. I was only there because I was desperate.  

What was the set and setting of the therapy?

It was in the office laying on a futon. I had shades over my eyes and listened to music for the first hour while we waited for it to take effect. They also taught me breathing exercises to calm myself. I was feeling really anxious but suddenly, in a split-second, I went from being completely anxious to being the most relaxed, clear and happy I had ever felt. I spent four hours in that state. I found I could think about memories previously too troubling to recollect. I realized that I was trying to maintain control over them and that was a waste of time. The MDMA helped me realize where I was going wrong. 

What kind of questions did they ask you?

They would prompt me by asking questions like, “Why do you think you spend your nights role-playing traumatic scenarios?” And I would go into my mind and realize that it’s a control mechanism that had become a habit. I learned that I needed to accept what had happened. A lot of the time it came down to that. I also had to learn how to honor the friends I had lost. I realized that by moving on, I was not forgetting them. In fact, moving on is the best way to honor them. 

Why did you need to take MDMA in order to do that?

The other medications had numbed me down and so I never had the chance to delve into things. Whereas the MDMA made me confront myself and get to the root of the problem. 

Did the symptoms go away after?

They pretty much went away instantly. 

So are you cured?

I hesitate to use the word “cured.” The memories are still there but the MDMA therapy taught me not to push them away but to think about why they are coming up and consider why this is happening.  

So you’re saying it didn’t cure you but it gave you tools to deal with your problems?

Yes—it gave me my life back.

What else did you learn?

Everything has a positive to it. The more suffering you go through, the more happiness you can feel on the other side. I learned that life is precious and to take risks and try new things and if it doesn’t work out,
you can still move on and grow. 

Where do you think you’re growing to?

Hopefully, success and speaking out and educating people in favor of this kind of therapy.

Should MDMA be legalized?

I think it should be legalized for medical research and decriminalized in general. I think the war on drugs has failed and it’s a waste of money. We should hook people up with treatment and not put them in prison.

Would you take MDMA for fun now?

No, I want to do it again but would stick with a therapeutic setting.

Should it be used for other problems apart from PTSD?

They’re doing studies for autism and anxiety and couples therapy, which is what the drug was originally used for. I think it would be good for anyone who has been stuck in a rut for a long time or needs to feel good enough to think about troubling things. 

Describe your life now and how it helped.

I went from being dysfunctional to starting Expert Exchange and becoming an advocate for MDMA-Assisted Therapy in Washington DC. I moved halfway across the world by myself and started rallying other veterans for humanitarian work. I believe that veterans should have the opportunity to use their skills for good and make people happy in developing nations. It’s rewarding to get out of the US and the 9 to 5, take a leap of faith and travel to Cambodia and do community projects. I think it has great healing potential.