Story of an Anonymous Veteran
I had been on active duty for six years when I first tried MDMA. Until then, the furthest I had strayed from the D.A.R.E. program was a little cannabis in high school (which, I noted, did not make me a hopeless drug addict, as Daren the D.A.R.E. Lion had led me to believe). Like any good officer, my drug of choice was alcohol, with the occasional cigar on the golf course. Even though I knew Daren was probably lying about most drugs, I had abstained from all illegal drug use since commissioning, even when presented the opportunity.
Until one particularly bright and sunny New Year’s Day. I was staying in a charming Airbnb along with Annie and Michael, a civilian couple I’d been close with since college. That morning, we lounged in the living room in our pajamas and discussed New Year’s resolutions. When it was my turn, Annie pulled something out of her bag.
“You know,” she said, “we’ve got some left over.”
I knew they had used MDMA at the concert the night before, and I was slightly envious of their blissful experience. That wasn’t the first time I’d seen someone use a more exotic drug, nor was it the first time they had offered to share.
But this situation was qualitatively different from the others. This wasn’t a frat house full of strangers offering dubious powder—this was a cozy home, warmed by the winter sun, with my two closest friends. And these friends had enough experience with MDMA that they might make good sitters for someone’s first trip.
“Don’t tempt him,” Michael said. “You know he can’t.”
Annie set the pills on a side table and eased back into the couch. “In case you want to. You know, new year and all.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the capsules. How could something so small be such a big deal? How could those pills simultaneously produce such a blissful experience for my friends and yet command such a harsh punishment for me? It made as much sense as cannabis leading to a hopeless drug addiction.
But on that day, the scales were tipped toward ecstasy. I had taken leave for the entire week, and I wouldn’t be returning to work for another seven days. Even if I was randomly selected for a drug test on my first day back, the MDMA would be long out of my system. This was about as risky as eating a poppyseed muffin.
And I’d eaten plenty of those.
But I needed to know a few things first. What does it feel like (“You’ll feel overwhelming love!”), how long does it last (“A good four hours if you’re lucky!”), what if I don’t like it (“Drink some orange juice!”). The information I wanted was remarkably similar to that for a mission briefing into a new combat zone. This is the expected plan, these are the hazards to avoid, here’s our contingency plan if things go haywire. The big difference, though, was that, unlike a mission, I couldn’t abort an MDMA trip. Once I lifted off, there was no turning back.
Satisfied I had done my due diligence, I settled in. My friends had given me a pretty good idea of what to expect and I liked the sound of every bit of it. What they didn’t tell me, however, was that the trauma underlying my adult life would surface. They didn’t tell me that this was going to be the keystone moment around which my life would arc in an entirely new direction. But it was better not knowing. Such moments are only possible when unexpected.
I picked up a single capsule of MDMA and, swallowing it with orange juice, crossed the rubicon.
“I would describe trauma,” says Dr. Paul Conti, author of Trauma: The Invisible Epidemic, “as anything that causes us emotional or physical pain that surpasses our coping mechanisms … and then really leaves a mark on us as we move forward.” It can be a single traumatic event, he explains on The Tim Ferris Show, such as an assault or a car accident, or it can be chronic, like with ongoing abuse or even marginalization.
The key part of Dr. Conti’s definition that is often overlooked is that trauma exceeds our ability to cope. Stress is as integral a part of life as eating or breathing, and everyone handles it differently. So what happens when something stressful happens and simply going for a hike in nature doesn’t help?
Well, let me tell you.
I suffered a series of personal, financial, and professional failures in my early twenties that had significant and permanent impacts on my life. All were due to decisions I made—some involved simple bad luck, others were spectacularly stupid on my part—and they happened within a year of each other. Normally, one bad decision on its own wouldn’t be cause for anything more than a few depressive weeks. But when combined together, they were like dozens of small holes in a ship’s hull. Unable to cope with my own failures, I sank into a deep depression that undermined my crucial first-year performance as an officer, thus relegating me to an assignment I swore I’d never do.
On good days, the memories were intrusive and constantly reminded me of my failures. On bad days, I fantasized about what my life would’ve been like had I not made those mistakes. The more I obsessed over this fantasy version of me, the more I secretly loathed who I actually was. This was irrational, of course, because I had achieved quite a bit of success (career and otherwise), but reason had no place in my fragile mind.
I know how ridiculous that sounds, but it really was how I thought. I was a white, cisgendered, heterosexual male in the military raised in the Christian faith—my methods of coping were rooted in toxic masculinity and literature written by Iron Age shepherds. Was it any wonder that I had difficulty coping with my own shortcomings and failures?
As the years wore on, I didn’t think anything was wrong. Even if I had tried to learn, heal, and grow, I wouldn’t have been able to. Forgiveness isn’t possible if it’s sheathed in contempt, and so long as I kept directing my self-love at some idealized version of me that didn’t actually exist and loathing the one that did, I was doomed to suffer. In other words, I needed to truly love myself—the real me—but ever since my failures triggered that deep depression, it simply wasn’t possible.
Until one particularly bright and sunny New Year’s Day.
My eyes wandered around the room as though I could see color for the first time. My body seemed to flutter in place, as though the butterflies had escaped my stomach and filled every corner of my being. The warmth spreading through me reminded me of being a kid on Christmas morning. I didn’t know what was being gifted to me, but it certainly was a gift—this ability to look at a thing and see the good and the beauty and the love in it.
This didn’t just apply to objects, either—it applied to memories, too.
Probably because Annie and Michael were present for that period of my life, those painful memories started surfacing from the depths of my mind, like flotsam from a shipwreck. I tried to push them back down like I usually did, but this time I wanted something different.
I actually wanted to think about it. I wanted to talk about it, to pick it up, hold it, hug it, and embrace these agonizing memories, just like I’d embrace the happy ones.
And so I told Annie and Michael every fine detail about all of my failures (which was quite cathartic on its own, since I had never considered talk therapy) and they listened with compassion. And the deeper I went, the more my secret self-loathing reversed into a clear and vibrant self-love.
Even though I had considered them the biggest regrets of my life, I now could only view them with gratitude. The MDMA had altered my perception and now I was actually glad they had happened because I needed to learn from my mistakes. And if they hadn’t happened, then I wouldn’t be the person I had become.
And that was a good thing because I absolutely loved the person I had become.
In the days that followed, I tried to figure out what had happened. One afternoon with MDMA had somehow worked loose a mental knot that had been tightening up for years. The dreams had stopped. The pangs of regret had turned to gratitude. How could something so small have such an incredible impact?
I’m not suggesting that you only need to look at the bright side, or that it could always be worse, or whatever else you might find on the wall of a high school counselor’s office. I’m suggesting that I needed MDMA to lift me out of my toxic mindset and show me that there was a better way of living.
As I searched for answers on how one experience could be so powerful, I learned about the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and their successful work combining MDMA and psychotherapy with veterans and PTSD. After reading every research paper, interview, and article I could find, it clicked.
What happened on that New Year’s Day was remarkably similar to the MAPS protocol. Although it wasn’t a therapy clinic, the Airbnb was a warm, safe, and inviting environment. Although my friends weren’t therapists, they were a male and female pair, just as the protocol specified. The therapists don’t hand the MDMA directly to the patient, they allow them to take it themselves from a small container—just as I had taken the capsule off the table.
Of course, there were significant differences, not the least of which I was using a street drug with unknown purity and contaminants. I wasn’t planning on engaging in any sort of therapy. And even though what I suffered was technically considered trauma, it certainly wasn’t PTSD.
But I think that makes the point even more powerful: if a single afternoon with MDMA in an uncontrolled environment had this profound effect on me, imagine how powerful it could be when in the right environment with the right patient. Even though my MDMA experience happened over five years ago, it still stands as a pivotal moment in my life, a fulcrum around which everything in my life forever changed course. All the more reason to advocate for its use.
And yet I can’t. I can’t tell any of my colleagues—the ones who could benefit the most—about my experience. I can’t tell the dozens of people I’ve known who have suffered from countless deployments and broken families and trauma far worse than mine. As hard as it may be, I have to remain silent until I’m out of the military.
And when I am, my next career will be in this space. This medicine is far too powerful and effective to let Daren the D.A.R.E. Lion continue to malign. Our society simply needs it. My friends and fellow servicemembers need it. The number of people enduring their trauma in silent bravado is a tragedy, and it’s only growing. All of them deserve their own particularly bright and sunny New Year’s Day.