“I had never felt really happy no matter what happened in my life,” he says. “I always felt restless, always that underlying heaviness. Things just didn’t make sense in my head. It was as if someone had taken a cable and unplugged it, and I tried to plug it back in.”
Finally, Nathan learned about a study testing the use of MDMA to treat severe PTSD and managed to get into a Phase 3 clinical trial, the last hurdle before US regulators consider whether the therapy should be approved.
MDMA is a synthetic psychoactive with a reputation as a party drug that is popular with clubbers – you may know it as ecstasy, E or molly. It causes the brain to release large amounts of the chemical serotonin, which causes a euphoric effect, but has also been found to reduce activity in the brain’s limbic system, which regulates our emotional responses. This appears to help people with PTSD relive their traumatic experiences in therapy without being overwhelmed by strong emotions such as fear, shame, or sadness.
To test this theory, Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a California-based nonprofit, set up a randomized, double-blind study in which Nathan participated. The participants attended three eight-hour sessions in which they were given either placebos or two doses of MDMA before discussing their problems and receiving guidance from two licensed therapists.
The test will be in May 2021 results were published in Nature Medicine. They were breathtaking. Of the 90 patients who participated, those who received MDMA reported significantly better results than the rest. Two months after treatment, 67% of the participants in the MDMA group no longer had PTSD, compared to 32% in the placebo group.
I see life more as something to be explored and appreciated rather than something to be endured.
Ben Sessa, a UK-based researcher involved in the launch of the country’s first psychedelic therapy clinic, in Bristol, says the US Food and Drug Administration could approve MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD by the end of 2023.
Other trials are underway in the US, UK and beyond to test whether compounds such as psilocybin and ketamine can be used similarly to help treat mental illness. The early signs are positive, and if confirmed, they could shake up the mental health world.
I spoke to Nathan about what the MDMA-assisted therapy was like. Our conversation has been summarized and edited for clarity.
Q: How did your mental health problems manifest themselves?
A: Before I took part in the trial, I was not doing well. Everything I tried went terrible. Nothing worked. I have tried so many different therapists and different techniques. I lost my job in January 2018. That was depressing, and I had lost jobs before, but this time it was different. I decided that if this is caused by my mental health, I’m going to fix this. I’m going to do whatever it takes. If my therapist had told me to undress naked and walk through a busy mall and that would help me, I would have done it.
Q: How did you come to this research?
A: I was just down an internet rabbit hole late at night. I had been researching PTSD for a few hours and came across this study. I thought I might as well apply. I didn’t like it. In fact, I forgot about it after that. I didn’t even tell my wife. Then, two months later, I got this call from them, asking if they could interview me.
Q: Take me through the experience of what the sessions were like.
A: When you get there, it looks like an office building. From the outside you would never know that there are a lot of people taking MDMA inside. But you go through and you are taken to the treatment room, which has a couch, bedding, blankets and a pillow. Music is played, and it’s quite an integral part of the whole experience. It’s very soothing. It almost feels like a spa. A lot of sunlight comes in and through the window you can see trees and a canal. It’s very quiet. Then the two therapists enter. They monitor your vital signs – your temperature, your blood pressure, your heart rate, and so on. They talk to you a little bit about what you hope to get from today’s experience. And then they do this little ceremony or ritual where they light a candle to signify that things are starting. It almost feels a bit like a religious or spiritual experience. So they light the candle, and then one of the therapists goes and comes back with a bowl with a pill on it. They present it to you with a cup of water, you drink the water and swallow the pill, and then you just sit and wait. You chat while you wait.
At one point I said, “I don’t think this is the MDMA.” I had never taken anything like this and was honestly a little nervous. They don’t tell you if you have MDMA or not, but the lead therapist told me pretty much everyone knows. Almost as soon as I said I didn’t think I’d taken it, it started. I mean, I knew.