How MDMA Brought Clarity
A few years ago, I flew out to California to experience MDMA. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing, except my husband and my sister — who, god love ‘em, were totally supportive — because it’s just not the kind of thing you blurt out at a potluck. Especially here in Buffalo, NY. California? Perhaps.
Even as I write this, I’m having vague misgivings. When I told my daughter I was going to write this essay, she joked that maybe she shouldn’t have encouraged her friend to subscribe to my Substack. We both laughed, and then paused. “Are you okay with it?” I asked, suddenly panicked, to which she replied “Of course!” But the misgivings linger.
Why wouldn’t they? Our culture is pretty clear about what’s sanctioned and what’s not, and illegal drugs are CLEARLY not. But I’ve always felt the deep hypocrisy of the acceptance of alcohol in this country, or even of certain prescription drugs, both of which have done serious, tragic, widespread damage.
So I took MDMA in a controlled, therapeutic setting. So what. Misgivings be damned. Hell, Aaron Rodgers has come out publicly about his Ayuhuasca trip, so what am I worried about?
I recently unearthed the semi-rhetorical answer while sifting through boxes of memorabilia in anticipation of our impending move.
I’ve dragged these boxes from house to house to house over the past 26 years, even though I knew there was stuff in them I needed to jettison. (I talk about an aspect of that in my earlier essay Seeing the World with New Eyes, which addresses holding onto “stuff,” including inherited beliefs.)
Every time before a move I thought, eight weeks before closing, no problem. I’ll just do some every day! then like Alice in Wonderland I’d fall down daily into the contents of yellowed envelopes: back in my bunk at summer camp… passing notes in high school physics… visiting with my deceased mom… only to jerk back to reality and look with horror at the calendar: the moving truck will be here in 12 days??
Since hope springs eternal, I opened one of those boxes yesterday with the best of intentions, and stepped back into the 70s. A vinyl-covered tome with “My Scrapbook” emblazoned on it accosted me. Remember me? it said. I did.
Inside, glued to every brown paper page, was certificate after certificate, each one lauding some youthful accomplishment or educational milestone: Completed the Summer Book Challenge! Certified as Junior Lifeguard! Attained Marksman First Class! Achieved Middle School Honor Roll!
I marveled at the care I took to carefully Elmer all these papers to more paper. Clearly, I believed these documents were worth preserving. They were what I thought I would want to see, years later: proof of my value. Where did I get that idea?
My eye fell on a report card from Mr. O’Rourke, my jocular 5th grade teacher whom I adored.
For the first time since becoming a parent myself, I read through the rubric of categories, skills, and scores used to evaluate me as a 10-year-old. What I gleaned helped me understand, for the first time, what is valued in our world today. Here’s a smattering of evaluated skills:
Reads at rate appropriate to material
Is accurate in using numbers
Respects rules and authority
Completes assignments on time
Takes pride in achievement
It might as well be the list of necessary qualities to work an assembly line. Quality is job one! Based on my scores, I’d do quite well.
Where are the happiness scores? Creativity? Kindness? Desire to learn? Desire to contribute, to help? Courage to face challenges? Nowhere to be found. The only touch of humanity surfaced in Mr. O’Rourke’s handwritten comments. After some sweet remarks about my friendly demeanor and sense of humor, he said this:
“Mary is a very good student. Her only shortcomings are an unbelievable ability to procrastinate and to socialize! Neither characteristics affect her work, but I cannot begin to measure their cumulative effect on my aging processes!”
Funny, right? My parents were not amused. I remember well the stern talking-to I received, no matter how much I tried to impress on them Mr. O’Rourke’s laid-back, comedic style. Here’s my mother’s written reply on the back of the report card:
“You should not grow grey through Mary’s failings. Whatever means you may wish to use to curb her socializing and procrastinating will be supported by us wholeheartedly; and we will try to reinforce your efforts here at home. Mary, on her part, has promised to improve.”
Sheesh. Failings? Really? As a grown-up I’m tempted to make some snarky comment about my mother’s misuse of a semicolon being some sort of failing. But I won’t.
Instead, I’m looking at the bigger picture here. My parents were just responding within the accepted norms of society and public education at the time. I was expected to conform to the rules laid out to keep the masses in line. Stop daydreaming! Stop communing with your fellow human beings! Get back to work!
The more I conformed, the more approval I got, in the form of arbitrary numbers called grades and mimeographed affidavits called certificates.
No wonder I judged my value by the number of awards I racked up, all through high school, college, and beyond. No wonder I wrote a poem called Alma Mater about being a disappointment, which, by the way, went semi-viral. Based on the reactions it elicited, I hit some kind of nerve in thousands of others. It’s clear I’m not the only one who learned to judge myself by peering through the one lens this myopic society offers: accomplishment.
But that’s not the reason I flew out to California. At least, I didn’t think it was.
My marriage was a mess. What had started out as a passionate partnership 24 years earlier, was buckling under the pressure of providing for and raising a family, career misfires, serious illnesses, and political differences. We had lost our common path, and I wasn’t sure if we would ever find it again.
I know it looks like this essay might be turning into a how-I-healed-my-marriage story. It’s not. My marriage IS finally healed, but I’m saving the story of that process for another essay, because I believe it might provide value in these criminally divisive times in which we live.
Basically, I turned to MDMA as a tool to gain clarity: should I stay or should I go?
I shared all of this with the practitioner — I’ll call her Grace — before I even got on the plane, and then again when I arrived at the site she had located for my “journey:” the private, leafy backyard of a friend of hers who lived in Marin County.
Grace had gotten there earlier and set up a beautiful little altar on a stone wall. We sat next to it together, meditated on the intention for clarity, and asked for safety and protection. It seemed both ceremonial and therapeutic, a combination that was new for me but later felt obvious: of course, plant ceremonies have been done forever, in service of healing.
I swallowed the first dose — a tiny pill — and we talked. She asked questions; I answered them. At the time, I didn’t feel like the dose “did” anything, yet it clearly did. My emotions were even more accessible than usual, which meant that I cried a lot.
I cried about past relationships, losing my mother to cancer, and the double-bind of being perfect enough to gain my parents’ love but not so perfect that other family members would reject me. I cried about the confusion about my marriage and the pain and worry of family illnesses. Other stuff, too, that I can’t remember now.
I felt everything deeply, unreservedly, and yet the feelings moved through me effortlessly and were gone. I held on to nothing. My emotions blew through like the wind, each episode leaving me clearer and clearer, until I could touch unencumbered truth. The phrase “truth with no consequences,” came into my awareness, and it seemed perfectly apt.
Grace gave me a second dose, and I went from sitting near the rock wall to lying down on a big cushy mat in a patch of sunlight, and then when it got too hot, into a hammock strung between two arching trees.
Ah, the hammock. It was there that I felt different. I closed my eyes, and descended into the most blissful, peaceful state I’ve ever experienced. I floated between earth and heaven, resting in the divinity of dappled sun, blue sky, and green leaves rustling gently above me. (For a more visceral experience, check out The Hammock, last week’s poem.)
Whenever I opened my eyes, Grace was always there, her eyes transmitting love, acceptance, and motherly nurturing. She was like an angel by my side, present, adoring. I felt completely safe.
I drifted between conversation with Grace and easy silence, so happy to engage in either whenever the need arose. I felt like I could do whatever felt good and right — even crying felt good and right; it was what was real in that moment.
Strange that I could feel so at home with my impulses, so filled with agency even as I surrendered to the moment. But it was just that surrender that gave me agency; I let go finally of trying to control anything, so I could allow everything — even the sudden onset of my legs shaking uncontrollably. Grace explained that it was trauma leaving my body, and that, too, I accepted. After a few minutes, it subsided.
I hadn’t felt so loved and nurtured since many years before my mother got sick. To be rocked in a hammock, soothed, attended to, seen, enveloped… no, not for a long, long time.
From that place of love, so much truth came out. It spilled out of me, without apology. Before the session started, I had thought I would hear some Morgan Freeman-like voice of God talking to me, but all I heard was… myself talking to myself.
Meggan Watterson writes in the introduction to her phenomenal book, Mary Magdalene Revealed,
“I hope in sharing her voice in this book, you will hear the voice of your own soul. (Which might feel lofty and intimidating, I know, but it’s just this clear, calm, unassuming voice of love inside you.)”
That’s what I heard. The voice of love within.
My intention had been to gain clarity about my marriage, and yes, I did gain clarity — but not about whether to stay or go. Oddly (or perfectly) enough, that dilemma shifted to the periphery.
What became clear to me was that I had been living outside myself. I had been looking for everything, including love, outside myself. The hammock granted me permission to just stop. All of it — the striving, the self-evaluating, the need to “accomplish” something important — came to a blessed halt.
Even the obsession about my marriage disappeared. Peaceful surrender took its place. I knew that everything was going to be okay, no matter what, because the love I was looking for was within, always had been and always will be.
For the first time in my entire adult life, my mind was still. Silent. I actually felt like I could choose whether to think or not. It was like the loudmouth, authoritarian captain of the ship was AWOL… and the ship was doing just fine without her.
The next day, I spent some more time with Grace, processing and integrating the journey. I wondered, would the calm clarity that I experienced stay with me? She told me that some piece of it would, and she was right.
To this day, I feel like the journey I took gave me a roadmap to find my way back, like the breadcrumbs in Hansel and Gretel. For years, I had meditated without really knowing what it felt like to reach a stillpoint; now, I know when I’m there, and because of that, I’m eager each day to return to it. It’s a relief, a sensation of… ahh, finally, I can just BE.
What does all of this have to do with freedom? I’m not suggesting that you follow in my footsteps and embark on a MDMA or plant-induced journey. Whether you’re intrigued by what I’ve written in this essay, or horrified, is beside the point.
The point is… well, there are a few points. One is that you and I and everyone else should have the personal freedom to explore the world of plant medicine without stigma or government intervention. Based on the growing acceptance of therapeutic journeying, it seems we are moving in that direction, even as there are other efforts to restrict humanity’s expanding consciousness. You win some, you lose some.
The deeper point beyond that, is that meditation has the power to deliver us to the place where our minds are free. Free from our own internal shackles, free from the propaganda that constantly surrounds us. Free from worries about what anyone thinks. It is in that place of freedom that human consciousness blossoms.
As I’ve said in earlier essays, there are many different ways to meditate; the important thing is to find the one that works for you, the one that drops you into your heart. For me, the utter relief of non-doing brings me back there, again and again.
Just after I graduated high school, my parents and I went out to Dominic’s, a local pizza parlor in Rocky River, Ohio. We ordered our pizzas and the customary pitcher of root beer (gotta love the Midwest), and then chatted amiably.
A familiar face appeared at our table, and before he could introduce himself, I greeted him joyfully: “Mr. O’Rourke!” then turning to my parents, “My 5th grade teacher.”
He smiled broadly. He was a bit less portly and a lot more bald, but that same twinkle danced behind his hornrims. He shook hands with my parents, and they announced, unbidden, that I was heading off to Stanford soon.
He nodded with great satisfaction, and then uttered a sentence so kind, so obviously meant to be the highest compliment he could imagine, a sentence that instead of lifting me up somehow locked itself around my ankle like a leaden ball and chain: “Mary’s going to do great things someday.”
Thoughtful Mr. O’Rourke could never have thought that I would drag such an innocuous comment — made in a chance meeting at a pizza parlor, no less — with me for the rest of my life, as a crushing pressure to succeed.
He probably also could never have thought that I would find the key to unlock that ball and chain, more than three decades later, in a hammock in Marin County. Yes, I’m still super-sociable, because connecting with others is part of my life’s purpose. And yes, I still procrastinate, though now I prefer to think of it as putting off “doing” in favor of “being.”
I am being great things. Isn’t it wonderful?