The following is excerpted from Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy by Don Lattin, published by Synergetic Press.
Andy Gold and John Saul sat together on “the tripping couch” of the cozy psychedelic psychotherapy center overlooking Mt. Tamalpais, the majestic centerpiece of Marin County, California, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. They’re sharing a piece of furniture that Andy, a lawyer battling colon cancer, and John, a yacht broker with an even more terrifying disease, have gotten to know well over the past six months. These two men were among the first research subjects to complete a MAPS sponsored study to see if psychological trauma sparked by a life-threatening diagnosis could be lessened with intense five-hour sessions of talk and music therapy fueled by MDMA.
For the past three years, Saul, 50, had been living with the intense pain and existential uncertainty of systemic scleroderma, an incurable autoimmune disorder that hardens the skin and can be fatal if it spreads to the lungs or kidneys. Suddenly, this former college wrestler and marathon runner found himself so weak that he could barely walk from the waiting room to his doctor’s office. “I’d get a heart rate of 140 just turning over in bed,” he said.
Saul’s mother had seen a story I wrote on the front page of San Francisco Chronicle about a team of Marin County therapists who were recruiting eighteen volunteer research subjects suffering from extreme anxiety or depression as they faced a life-threatening illness. As soon as he saw the story in the Sunday newspaper, John Saul was certain he’d be a perfect subject for the study being conducted by the two researchers, Dr. Phil Wolfson and his partner, Julane Andries, a licensed family therapist.
“You are almost sure to get depressed with this disease. It turns your life around 180 degrees,” John said. “It gives you an acute awareness of the tremendous overlap between physical and mental pain, and can spark a spiritual crisis. That’s something that has not really been addressed in Western medicine, but I’m acutely aware of it.”
While he’d never taken Ecstasy, John had tried mescaline and other psychedelic drugs as a teenager, after he read the peyote stories of Carlos Castaneda, the UCLA anthropologist who wrote a series of bestselling books in the late 1960s and 1970s about his purported encounters with Don Juan, a Yaqui Indian sorcerer. Tripping seemed to be part of John’s heritage. His father, who was of Cherokee and Choctaw Indian heritage, left Oklahoma and came to California in the late 1960s with his young wife when John Saul was just a toddler. They wound up living in Laurel Canyon at the tail end of the hippie scene in Southern California.
John and I met during an interview at Phil and Julane’s home on a bucolic hilltop in San Anselmo. Sitting with him on “the tripping couch” was another of the first six patients to complete the study. Andy, the attorney with cancer, had heard about the clinical trials from a psychiatrist who knows Dr. Wolfson and was familiar with his work with MDMA. Andy’s cancer had been in remission for several years. But he had what he now sees as a long-delayed emotional reaction to the trauma from colon surgery, a brutal chemotherapy regime, and a medical test that indicated—falsely, it turned out—that he had another form of cancer. He’d gone to see the psychiatrist at the suggestion of his wife. “I felt lost,” he said, “like I had no purpose.”
Andy’s wife, Karen, recalled that her husband had been “receding from the world.” He seemed depressed, spending countless hours sitting in his chair in the living room of their home in Piedmont, California. Karen had seen my newspaper article about the Marin County MDMA study and had brought it up to Andy, but they never followed up until his new psychiatrist mentioned it again.
Having come of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Gold, 62, had smoked pot and dabbled with psychedelic drugs, which scared him more than enlightened him. “The last time I took a psychedelic was when I was 21, and it was a sort of dark experience for me. So it had been forty years.”
He’d never taken MDMA, which is not technically in the same category of drugs as such “classic hallucinogens” like LSD or mescaline. “I knew that MDMA had a reputation as a party drug,” Andy said, “but I’d also heard that it was an empathogen, meaning that it opens you up to empathy and provides a window into yourself.”
After passing through the study’s screening process and preliminary therapy sessions, Gold was ready for his first experience with MDMA—or, perhaps, the placebo.
He took the pill and watched as Wolfson did a little opening ritual. “They bang on some drums and gongs and evoke the spirits,” Andy recalled. “I’m a skeptic, so I couldn’t resist joking around with him a little about that.”
Feeling nervous, and remembering his bad trip decades ago, Andy admits that he “had all his defense mechanisms up” as he waited for the drug to take effect. Twenty minutes . . . thirty minutes . . . forty minutes passed and he didn’t feel a thing. He was about to conclude that he’d gotten the placebo when it hit him.
“All of a sudden, it was like I dove ten feet underwater into some rushing stream,” he recalled. “I went out completely. I lost touch with the outside world.”
“There are a couple hours that went by that are lost to me,” he said. “It was like my psyche was knocked down so that I could start over again.”
For Andy Gold, the real therapy started a month later during his second MDMA-assisted session.
“It gives you the ability to look inside and go through the closets of your life,” he said. “It gives you access to your emotional content. I saw that out of my cancer, I had become fearful. I couldn’t be in crowds. I wasn’t doing the things in my life that gave me pleasure, like being active in the world.”
Andy’s wife noticed a big change in her husband after the MDMA trial.
“There’s a lightness about him that wasn’t there,” she told me three months after the final session. “It opened a window to a new horizon. It’s not just the MDMA and not just the therapy. It’s the MDMA-assisted therapy that helped him go deeper.”
John Saul wound up being one of the two Wolfson subjects in the first round that got the placebo during his first two sessions, which surprised him when that fact was revealed to him and the researchers.
“I was so ready for this and had so many expectations that I was 100% sure I’d been dosed,” he said.
Research subjects who get the placebo pills are eventually allowed to have three “open label” MDMA sessions with Wolfson and Andries. When he finally got the real MDMA, Saul saw the difference and soon realized how the medicine could help him face the fear of dying from this dreadful disease.
“I had a vision of my adult, courageous self without a molecule of fear finding this cowering, shivering little child, another version of myself, and taking him under his wing and saying, ‘Everything is going to be okay.’ ”
“I was very anxious about the disease getting into my lungs,” John said.
“During the first MDMA session, I was getting these deep, clear breaths. It was great. Then Julane, said, ‘Notice how you are breathing.’ ”
John started to cry as he remembered the moment during his interview with me. Andy, sitting next to John on the tripping couch, put his arm around his fellow research volunteer, comforting him.
“It’s okay,” Andy said. “You can do it.”
Julane Andries said her experience with the first six research subjects was emotional for her as well as for the volunteers.
“There is such a deep connection that forms with all the hours we sit with them,” she said. “When we’re done, it’s almost like watching your children leave the nest.”
One of the big questions I have about these experiments in psychedelicassisted psychotherapy is what happens when the research subjects do leave the nest. It’s relatively easy to have a revelation while tripping on MDMA or psilocybin. The trick is to find a way to take the lessons learned on psychedelics and use them in one’s everyday life—without a drug that can make everything seem wondrously portentous.
It’s a question I put to another of Wolfson’s volunteer subjects, cancer survivor Wendy Donner, who lives just down the mountaintop from Phil and Julane’s therapeutic nest.
What happens after the Ecstasy?
Donner, 43, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. There’s never a good time to get that kind of news, but the timing was especially bad for Wendy. She’d just spent a year taking care of her dying father, who had succumbed to brain cancer. On top of that, one of her friends had recently died of the same disease.
“It was a month,” she recalled, “of utter horror.”
Wendy was determined to get focused and fight the disease—this time in her own body. She went through her own difficult year of surgery, chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery. In a weird way, that was the easy part. She beat the cancer and was getting back to her life as an educational consultant and mother of two young children.
But something was wrong.
“The physical battle with cancer is finite, but the psychological battle is amorphous and pervasive,” she said. “It’s like nothing is sure. There is this expansiveness that is incredibly challenging. Your support team is all in when you have cancer. People are helping with the food and the kids. You release everyone to go on with their lives, and then there are these dark, terrifying moments when you feel very lonely and isolated.”
During her MDMA therapy, Donner had a vision of herself “sitting in my present space, on fertile ground with light shining down. Behind me is my cancer experience and way ahead of me is a landscape of shapes and experiences that haven’t yet happened. There are good things and bad things, but they haven’t happened yet and I’m not there yet.”
She said her experiences on the drug “helped me situate myself away from my past and away from my future and just be in this really wonderful place, which is a place of health.”
After leaving the therapeutic nest, Wendy has learned to take a moment, close her eyes and remember that visual space. “Now it is cemented in my being,” she said. “I refer to it all the time. It’s just a completely different way of being in the word.”
“Can you give me an example?” I asked.
“It’s like I’ll get a headache and start thinking the cancer might have gone to my brain. Before I start thinking about that and telling myself, Oh my God! My dad died of brain cancer and start going down that rabbit hole, I refer back to my catalogue of images from the MDMA sessions and take one out for visualization. It can just be something I do for thirty seconds in the middle of parenting my kids, but it can get me through the hard moments.”
When I spoke with Wendy, John and Saul, their therapy team was in the process of screening potential volunteers and selecting the next group of six research subjects to crawl into their nest overlooking Mt. Tamalpais. Twelve more subjects were expected to go through the Marin County drug trials over the next year before the data is analyzed and the findings are written up. But Wolfson is already confident that the study will be a success. “We are seeing moving and wonderful changes in people,” he said. “MDMA opens people to conversation, examination and empathy.
Join bestselling author Don Lattin on Tuesday, September 19 at The Alchemist’s Kitchen in NYC, for an evening of stories about his recent experiences as a psychedelic journalist and participant/observer in a dizzying array of therapeutic treatments and shamanic circles —a journey that took him from a high-tech research lab in Switzerland to a mind-blowing encounter with the dried venom of a Sonoran desert toad. Learn more.