Psychedelics dropped onto my radar after I left the British Army in 2010 and wrestled with the fallout of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, ranging from sleepless nights to a new runaway temper.
I was a graduate student studying journalism in the land of Timothy Leary, the American psychologist and writer made famous by his strong advocacy of psychedelic drugs during the 1960s counterculture. “A hero of American consciousness” was how Allen Ginsburg described him. Leary argued that LSD showed potential for therapeutic use in psychiatry.
Immersed in graduate school life, I was exposed to an enormous range of new opinions and ideas. I was reading extensively, which included hoovering up articles related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to veterans. I couldn’t help but notice that the United States appeared well ahead of most countries, especially the UK, in its energetic research into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the psychological impacts of experiencing trauma. The U.S.’s more proactive engagement with these issues made sense given the enormous size of its military and veteran population.
“It’s not the drug—it’s the therapy enhanced by the drug.”
I also noticed reporting around so-called moral injury, which I hadn’t heard of before. It’s a condition that shares some symptoms with PTSD while being predominantly characterized by shame and spiritual pain.
While this was going on, I was also in regular email contact with a friend who had left the army after our Iraq tour. In our correspondence, we shared concerns over our sleepless nights and that hair-trigger feeling of volatility. Our frank discussions led to equally frank countermeasures suggested by my friend. Among his eclectic list of mood stabilizers—reading good 19th-century literature, learning to cook tasty organic Mediterranean food, regular sex in a stable relationship, prayer, and meditating on the New Testament—he suggested microdosing every six months with MDMA (also known as Ecstasy or Molly), “just to take the edge off.”
My first attempt to follow his advice led to losing $25 to a fellow student’s brother for some MDMA that never materialized. After that, my previous reservations about taking drugs kicked in and I dropped the matter. Some years later, at the Electric Forest dance music festival near the small town of Rothbury, Michigan, I steeled myself once again. The psychedelic proffered this time around was Leary’s preferred option. “Be careful, you’re about to discover everything they told you is a lie,” a friend told me about a tiny piece of paper I had just placed under my tongue. Suffice to say it proved revelatory. The edge was definitely taken off, and I was left with much to ponder regarding all the previous anti-drug messaging I had grown up with and known in the army.
Interest in the therapeutic potential of drugs such as MDMA, LSD, and the likes of magic mushrooms has been around for years. But early research collapsed after a global backlash in the early 1970s made the drugs illegal. Now, however, psychedelic science is undergoing an international comeback.
A recent U.S. study demonstrates that MDMA, when paired with talk therapy, can bring relief to those suffering from severe PTSD.
“Unlike traditional pharmaceuticals, MDMA does not act as a band-aid that tries to blunt symptoms of PTSD,” says Rick Doblin, the studies senior author and director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit research group that sponsored and financed the clinical trials. Rather it “seems to allow the brain to process painful memories and heal itself.” He emphasizes that MDMA does not automatically produce beneficial results if taken in isolation without talk therapy. “It’s not the drug—it’s the therapy enhanced by the drug” that enables progress in alleviating PTSD.
I recently, and for the first time, underwent counseling provided for British veterans by the UK’s National Health Service. The talk therapy was highly effective in addressing what appears to be my moral injury, influenced to a large degree by the deaths of women and children accidentally killed by bombs we dropped during fire fights with the Taliban. During this period of counseling, I dropped acid in between talk sessions one balmy Friday evening as the sky dimmed seductively above Seville in southern Spain. Not, I must emphasize, with any prompting from or even any knowledge on the part of my counselor.
While this was not a controlled application of psychedelics with talk therapy, there’s no denying I found the experience beneficial in ways my purely recreational use had not been. After having my eyes opened to the powers of psychedelics at the music festival, I soon discovered how taking them on their own, without guidance, carries the usual risk of leaving the user increasingly addled and, especially if there is a mental health issue like PTSD or moral injury crouching in the corner, unable to focus on tackling the problem at its roots.
In addition to its use for PTSD, psychedelic-assisted therapy is being studied for other mental health conditions, ranging from substance abuse and obsessive-compulsive disorder to phobias and eating disorders.
It’s still early days though. The safety and efficacy of these drugs as medicines is far from settled. One concern is the current lack of healthcare professionals trained to provide psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and effectively judge whether the powerful changes in consciousness these drugs can cause is encouraging healing or leading to psychological harm. Another concern is that the current higher costs of pharmaceutical-grade MDMA and psilocybin may drive things underground, resulting in people accessing unregulated MDMA and psilocybin treatment options.
The case for psychedelics is being bolstered, however, by mounting evidence that current drug regimens being offered to veterans suffering PTSD are either not working or are causing serious harm. Veterans prescribed the tranquilizer benzodiazepine—Valium and Xanax are two commonly known brands—have become addicted and left feeling zombified.
All this has added resonance given the mental health issues now fomenting across society due to the pandemic. There are concerns about healthcare workers and first responders experiencing PTSD and moral injury. But there are also many ordinary people whose mental health has taken a hit. Quarantines and lockdown experiences are recognized by experts as having negative psychological impacts, including causing PTSD-like symptoms, depression, and insomnia.
“To be enlightened is to be aware,
always, of total reality in its
Then again, there are concerns that the bar for what constitutes trauma is continually being lowered, thereby enabling almost anyone to join the trauma-suffering community. I’m acutely conscious of that trend in relation to my own reactions and decade-long navel-gazing over Iraq and Afghanistan. Do I really have a moral injury, I often wonder. You can’t prove such an intangible wound, which potentially leaves the door wide open for misdiagnosis or to rummaging around in your psyche to a debilitating degree.
Correctly discerning what is or isn’t trauma, or what sort of trauma goes beyond the usual levels of stress that are inevitable in life and therefore warrant more attention, is a challenge. Even the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD notes this quandary and how the risk of exposure to trauma has been a fundamental part of the human condition since we evolved as a species:
“Attacks by saber tooth tigers or twenty-first-century terrorists have probably produced similar psychological sequelae in the survivors of such violence. Shakespeare’s Henry IV appears to meet many, if not all, of the diagnostic criteria for [PTSD], as have other heroes and heroines throughout the world’s literature.”
It gets even more complicated when you then combine this quandary with the question of whether to medicate with powerful mind-altering drugs. The U.S. is already riddled with people addicted to pain killers and anti-depressants, which has led to an epidemic of drug-related deaths. Added to that now are increasing concerns over the mushrooming marijuana-industrial complex that some are calling Big Dope.
Despite the need to alleviate the suffering of veterans and others, there’s an inherent risk in continually expanding the ways a nation can escape reality and its many complexities and conundrums through mind-altering means. Some would argue that we are just papering over a spiritual vacuum in society that can be addressed by more honest, upfront, and simpler means. As others have noted throughout history, the solutions to our pains are often hidden in plain sight.
“To be enlightened is to be aware, always, of total reality in its immanent otherness,” Aldous Huxley wrote in The Doors of Perception. That 1954 work details Huxley’s experiences on mescaline and became a bible for the “turn on, tune in, drop out” movement of the 1960s. It even had some influence on my night in Seville. “Our goal is to discover that we have always been where we ought to be. Unhappily we make the task exceedingly difficult for ourselves.”
I can’t draw any firm conclusions about using psychedelics to help repair psychological damage, certainly not from my ad hoc experiment of dropping acid while undergoing old-fashioned talk therapy. But my experiences suggest that continued scientific inquiry in this area may yield tools to help alleviate the mental trauma many people struggle to manage.