Maintaining a successful marriage isn't easy. It takes work. It also, in our case, takes drugs.
My husband and I were inspired to try MDMA by Alexander Shulgin, known as Sasha, a Bay Area pharmacologist and chemist who specialized in synthesizing and bioassaying psychoactive compounds on himself and on willing subjects. He and some friends were on the Reno Fun Train in 1976, heading up to Tahoe for a weekend of gambling and carousing. His companions were drinking alcohol, but instead of joining them, Sasha drank a vial containing 120 milligrams of MDMA. He described the feeling like this: "I feel absolutely clean inside, and there is nothing but pure euphoria. I have never felt so great, or believed this to be possible."
Sasha, who referred to the drug as his "low-calorie martini," shared it with a friend, Leo Zeff, a psychotherapist who trained hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of therapists around the country in how to use MDMA as a tool in their practices. Sasha and his wife, Ann, a colleague of Zeff's, referred to MDMA as an empathogen or entactogen, a drug that enhances feelings of emotional communion and empathy, allowing for an opening up of communication. This, they said, was what made it ideal for couples. It allowed them to discuss potentially painful or divisive issues without triggering feelings of fear and threat, but of love. A love drug!
From about 1976 to 1981, MDMA remained a virtual secret among networks of psychotherapists who found it a profoundly important tool, especially in the treatment of couples, but who were hesitant to publicize or publish their findings for fear of hastening criminalization. Inevitably, however, word got out to recreational drug users. In 1981, a group of chemists in the Boston area — known, imaginatively, as the "Boston Group" — rebranded the drug as "Ecstasy" or "XTC" and increased the pace of production, stamping out thousands of little colorful pills decorated with characters reminiscent of SweeTarts candies. In 1983, one of their distributors, with the financial backing of investors from Texas, massively increased both production and distribution. The "Texas Group" held huge "Ecstasy parties" at bars and clubs, circulating posters and flyers and aggressively marketing the drug. In 1985, as the psychotherapists had predicted would happen once use spread widely, the DEA placed MDMA on Schedule I, thus ending nearly a decade of successful therapeutic use.
When I first began considering taking MDMA, my husband and I had four small children, busy careers, and sleep deficits that challenged the concept of empathy, let alone its reliable practice. We were stressed out, and though we would never have considered our marriage anything but happy, we were definitely communicating less than before we had children. We felt a little bit, we used to say, like foremen in a factory on swing shifts. We'd pass the children off to one another with sufficient instruction to ease the transition, and then head off to our own work. When we were alone together, we were spent and exhausted, encrusted with baby cereal and just a soupçon of puke, and though we still enjoyed one another's company, at times we lost the sense of intense communion we had once had.
Still, as compelling as was the possibility of opening up the lines of communication in a circumstance that enhances feelings of empathy and love, it took years for my husband and me to work up the courage to try the drug. I was afraid of MDMA. I didn't want to have a "bad trip," and I didn't want to die. It turns out, however, that so long as you're not stupid enough to source your pills from a wild-eyed stranger wearing a pacifier around his neck, the drug is relatively safe, even at high doses, though there have been fatalities, including among healthy young adults. MDMA raises body temperature and inhibits natural thermoregulation, increasing the risk of heatstroke. For this reason, probably the worst thing to do under the influence of MDMA is dance wildly in a packed room or beneath the desert sun. MDMA can also increase heart rate and raise blood pressure, making it dangerous for those who suffer from high blood pressure or heart disease. Additionally, MDMA can cause water retention. So, for example, if one takes it at a rave, and then chugs water to counteract the possibility of dehydration, one can suffer from hyponatremia, or water toxicity.