When I Knew it Was Time to End My Relationship With MDMA
MDMA seems like proof that what comes up must come down.
In the spring of 2016, my longstanding perfectionism had spun into a full-blown neurosis. I was working from 6 am to midnight daily. I prioritized hoarding money over doctors’ appointments, train tickets, and decent clothes. I rarely ate full meals, and I often threw up what I did eat. A day when I only made myself throw up once was a good day.
Then, a new friend gave me molly at a music festival in Vegas. On a deck overlooking the neon ferris wheel and giant daisies, I told her about all my struggles. “Workaholism, disordered eating, compulsive saving... they all come from the same place: not feeling good about myself,” I theorized. But that night, I did feel good about myself. At least good enough to know my self-esteem could survive me putting an end to my destructive coping mechanisms. The next morning, before hopping into my hotel bathtub, I gave my week’s notice to quit a job where I wasn’t treated with dignity. The day before Vegas was the last time I ever made myself throw up.
Two weeks later, on a trip with a friend in Ibiza, I took half an ecstasy pill (yes, like the Mike Posner song). As my roll kicked in at the Amnesia opening party, I asked a German man if I could bite his arm. With my sex drive ramped up and my jaw super tense, I found it irresistible. Facilitated by the bonding powers of MDMA, we fell in love in just a few days. I thought I’d never see him again, but on my flight home to New York, I arrived at a realization: All the limitations in my life were of my own making. If I wanted to, I could just go to Germany. I could go anywhere. I decided to fulfill my long-lost dream of becoming a digital nomad, traveling the world while working remotely. I believe MDMA helped me arrive at this realization by removing the fear that had been blocking it.
The day after my vacation was my deadline to renew the lease for my Manhattan studio, but instead, I threw the form away, spent two months in Germany with my new partner, then left to travel on my own. Over the course of the following year, I became a part-time nomad, part-time German resident, and he became both the partner who encouraged me to fly and the nest I landed on. I still thank god (or, in my more skeptical moments, Alexander Shulgin, the godfather of psychedelics) for the pill in Ibiza that brought us together.
The following summer, I went to Belgium’s Tomorrowland festival, where I took half a pill I’d bought from the same Ibiza bar that supplied the first one that started everything. As it hit, I excused myself from a conversation with a DJ, plopped down on the grass, took out my phone’s Notes app, wrote and wrote and wrote, then went back to the main stage and danced to Alesso. The next morning, I woke up with the skeleton of a book proposal on my phone. I expanded it, polished it up, and sent it out to agents. I got offers from 11, including the one I now work with.
By that point, I’d mostly stopped taking MDMA at clubs and festivals and began using it solely to write. In the work I produced, I could see the deeper meanings behind events in my life, connect the dots between them, and understand the motives of my thoughts and actions. I wrote about them with unusual self-awareness.
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But I’m the only person I know who’s been able to work well on MDMA. It’s also unusual that I rarely experienced the dreaded MDMA hangover, when people feel sad and sluggish. Instead, I felt happy and inspired the day after a trip. I occasionally got emotional two or three days after, but never depressed. It was as if this drug were made for me.
That is, until one Saturday this past March. With my boyfriend gone and a chapter of my book due, I decided to conduct one of my MDMA-assisted writing sessions. After half a pill from Amsterdam, my mind felt unblocked, and I quickly and easily wrote bits I’d been stuck on for weeks. Then, after an hour and a half, I felt tired and the insights started fading. Those days when just half a pill could change my life, it seemed, were gone. Since I’d begun needing higher doses to feel an effect, I took another half. But the fading continued, and with my judgment gone, I swallowed yet another half. I don’t remember taking the fourth half, but I know two pills were gone the next day.
Writing became harder as my eyeballs darted around. I shivered and sweat at the same time. My legs shook uncontrollably. Every time I stood up to use the bathroom, my vision went black momentarily. And I couldn’t pee no matter how hard I pushed. The drug began having psychedelic effects, putting strange words into my head and warping the text on my computer. Were it not for the euphoria I was experiencing, I would’ve panicked. Instead, I stayed in bed with the fan on, somehow getting a second chapter done. Fortunately, I’d regained my physical and mental stability by the time my boyfriend got home. “I feel sick,” I said, afraid to worry him with details. After a terrible night’s sleep, I woke up exhausted and nauseous but able to work for 12 hours. I promised myself I’d never take two pills in one day again.
Then, two weeks later, I found myself in Miami for the EDM festival Ultra. The night before, I got tickets to see Above and Beyond. They weren’t on until 2 am, and I didn’t know if I’d make it without drugs. I came up with a plan. I’d do a writing session, re-up, then go. But I’d stick to one pill.
After half a pill, I realized I’d buried the biggest point of my chapter and reworked it. But then, I felt tired and took another half. Then, in the shower, I processed a painful memory, seeing clearly what lessons I could learn from it and how I could apply them to my life. I got out and wrote a poetic essay about it. While writing, my jaw got so tense I began biting my pillow. I bit so hard, tiny drops of blood appeared on the white pillowcase. I was too high to care.
As the insights started fading, I decided to re-up and go to the concert. On the cab ride there, anxiety overtook euphoria. I suddenly felt unbearably self-conscious about something I’d tweeted. By the time I got there, I was exhausted and cranky. I didn’t want to leave yet, so I got a bottle of water and locked myself in a porta-potty. Someone banged on the door as I struggled not to drop the remainder of the second pill.
My rapidly dropping serotonin levels let me see how depressing this situation was. The whole venue appeared to be painted in greyscale. The re-up didn’t work, since my serotonin was so drained, and my anxiety only escalated before I decided to go home. By another miracle, I woke up with a headache but nothing more. My flood of inspiration continued, and I wrote for the next two days on my phone from the festival. That was the hard part: MDMA continued to give me inspiration even as it was turning on me.
When my friend popped a pill during Axwell Λ Ingrosso’s set and offered me one, I thought back to my last two trips. “I wish,” I told him. “But my body’s been sending some pretty clear signals that it can’t handle MDMA like it used to.” My body remembered the previous night so vividly, I shuddered as I watched him viciously chew gum.
Two days later, when a new friend offered me molly, I once again said, “I shouldn’t.” I mourned whatever insights I might have gained, what progress my work or my life might have made. But I also felt relieved I’d escaped the serotonin crash followed by desperate attempts to re-up, the inability to empty my bladder, and the sleeplessness punctured by half-waking dreams. I knew whatever experience I’d have would likely not match the one two years prior at EDC Vegas.
MDMA seems like proof that what comes up must come down. Eventually, it will take back what it gave you. My pattern of use is common, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center: Over time, your serotonin receptors adapt to the drug, so you feel fewer effects, then you take more to feel more, and you get more negative side effects without all the magic.
As more and more therapeutic benefits of MDMA and other psychedelics are uncovered, it’s important to remember that their use involves a delicate balance of benefits and risks. MDMA’s risks include disrupted circadian rhythm and cognitive impairment after excessive long-term use. In the short term, an MDMA overdose can lead to serotonin syndrome, which involves hypothermia, irregular heartbeat, and dehydration, Giordano says—the symptoms I experienced in my apartment that Saturday. Serotonin syndrome can be fatal.
After surviving an MDMA overdose, it’s best to stay away from the drug for at least six months to a year, Giordano tells me. “If you’ve toppled Humpty Dumpty off the wall and luckily you’ve put him back together, he should not be near a mild breeze.”
I don’t know if I’ll ever take MDMA again. I do know I won’t any time soon. I don’t want to ruin what’s up until now been mostly a magical thing. I have too much reverence for this substance to abuse it. I feel fortunate that MDMA gave me almost two solid years without taking much from me, and after recovering from those two horrific trips, I have a newfound appreciation for my body and its resilience. How could I put it through more?
Overall, MDMA and I parted on great terms. I’ll be forever grateful for those life-changing nights in Vegas and Ibiza and Belgium. But it would be safer if I didn’t have to get them there, where I had no professional support and did not truly know what I was ingesting. One day, in the future, that may be possible. I owe so much to MDMA. I owe it my relationship, my adventurous lifestyle, some of my best work, and much of my mental health. The least I can give it in turn is to listen to it—even when it tells me it’s time to say goodbye.
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