The Ecstasy Generation
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On Saturday, February 3, a 24-year-old Dane by the name of Andy Ramon Jacobs swallowed 84 condoms, containing 3,500 Ecstasy pills, and boarded a plane for the United States.
Beyond the deleterious coils of his bowels, Andy's Ecstasy was headed into the mouths and brains of all sorts of Americans: high school students, seeking a four-hour high free of self-loathing and alienation; club-goers, intent on finding euphoric bon âme with thousands of techno-entranced strangers; middle-aged professionals, wishing to connect to their partners in a theraputic experience flooded with chemically-enhanced joy. Andy's Ecstasy never made it past US Customs, but as a teenager to whom I showed the article of Andy's bust commented: "There are still plenty of happy pills to be found in this promised land."
Slowly but surely, Ecstasy is becoming the drug of choice for the millennial era. Unlike the dreamy, scatter-braining affect of marijuana, which gave '60s middle-class youth rebel credentials, or cocaine, which suited the self-centered, driven individualism of the '80s, Ecstasy, known variously as "a year of Prozac in one pill" and "penicillin for the soul," is being popped by a wide cross-section of Americans -- anywhere from 2 to 7 percent of the population. "It appears the Ecstasy problem will eclipse the crack-cocaine problem we experienced in the late 1980s," a cop told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last summer.
Some say that Ecstasy is just the ultimate party drug, smoother than cocaine or LSD, less numbing than pot -- and that people have always used drugs to escape. Others, however, describe it in more startling terms. They say it is a postmodern cure in a pill; that it eases spiritual emptiness and rancorous individualism; that it is a chemical salve for everything from alienation and depression to the lack of spirituality and community. Most of all, it seems to give people an ability to feel inspired when otherwise they cannot.
Thor, a 31-year-old computer freelancer and son of an international oil executive, is a typical example. He has often suffered from depression, a cloud of self-doubt and self-criticism he says has prevented him from pursuing goals his father disparaged. "I don't think I would be doing what I'm doing today [composing music] if it weren't for my experience on Ecstasy," Thor told me. "You see, it gives you a sense of absolute reality; in other words, you are able to see what is your reality, not the wider culture's."
I ask Thor why he thinks E has become so popular among teens and college students, and he readily responds: "They are taking it because they need a space to get away from a society that is soaked with commercial chimeras: images that promise happiness but deliver, in the end, very little joy. Ecstasy is a reality drug for a generation that has very few bearings."
Thor's testimony may be a somewhat extreme view of Ecstasy as a cure for negative social forces. But almost no one I spoke to, or whose drug tales I read, did not speak of Ecstasy in similarly exalted terms.
A January 21 article in the New York Time magazine, for example, is so pro-Ecstasy it begs the question: how many people on the Times' editorial staff also have enjoyed an afternoon or two of E bliss? The story by Matthew Klam is not just a happy tale of Ecstasy use, it's a classic conversion narrative. Klam was an apathetic college student, a Sigma Beta frat boy who was "angry, sarcastic, lost." "I spent my time demanding squat thrusts and smearing mustard on the heads of blindfolded, scared freshman," Klam tells the reader.
But when he started using Ecstasy, Klam found empathy for others, acceptance of himself and eventually interest in the world of ideas. "For me," he asserted. "there was life before Ecstasy, and life after Ecstasy." Putting down the piece, I wondered how many New York Times readers were now on the hunt for those little multicolored pills.
Certainly not all of them, however, will be as transformed by a few hits as Thor and Klam. Most recreational Ecstasy users say they seek it as a fun psychological aid, a way to better understand what ails them without the time and expense of traditional therapy.
Take Michael, a 56-year-old nonprofit executive. "I think it gets people in touch with more fundamental feelings of community, which are largely absent in American culture," he says. "It gives them insight into their relationships. I, personally, find myself less competitive, less paranoid, less aggressive after Ecstasy. And the feeling stays with me for weeks, sometimes months."
Shelia, a 29-year-old activist who was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, told me during her first "session" on Ecstasy she was able to forgive her father, who became a heroin addict during the Vietnam War. "One of the things I came to understand was that he takes heroin not because he is addicted to the drug but because it is his way of avoiding intimate relationships. And I stopped blaming myself for our lack of closeness."
Since 1990, Sheila has taken Ecstasy approximately twice a month at raves, primarily as a means "to communicate on a higher level of consciousness with my God." "There is basically a battle of good and evil on the dance floor, a kind of microcosm of the world," says Sheila. "And I am able to counter the negative energy there through a combination of trance and Christian prayers."
"I am often blue," says Jennifer, a 14-year-old from Manhattan, who was reluctant to elaborate, "but I feel better on Ecstasy than I ever have in my life. I feel like I make lifelong friends when I take the drug."
Happiness in a Pill
Ecstasy was not designed as a therapeutic drug. The German pharmaceutical company Merck patented in 1914 as an appetite suppressant, but never used it on humans. Then, in 1953, the US Army tried it out as a potential brainwashing chemical, also to no avail. And so its therapeutic potential remained buried until Alexander Shulgin, a Bay Area research chemist, re-synthesized it in his lab and used himself as a guinea pig.
Shulgin's "redisovery" of MDMA may have occurred as early as 1965, but what it certain is that by the early '70s, a psychologist to whom Shulgin had given the drug began to use it with patients and, within a few years, had introduced it to thousands of psychologists and therapists across the country. This group found its effects to be extraordinary. It was said to bring down the defenses of the most guarded individuals. It helped the suicidal to re-embrace living, the terminally ill to accept dying. Many psychologists who used the drug with patients said it served to solve the sort of problems that would have taken years of therapy.
Why this is so has everything to do with Ecstasy's chemical composition and the bits and pieces pharmacologists and neurobiologists have been able to understand about its impact on the brain. First off, Ecstasy, or 3-4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), as it is known in the medical world, is structurally similar to amphetamine, with its energetic rushes, and the hallucinogen, mescaline. Secondly, the drug causes a pinnacle of happiness because it forces cells in the brain to release serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep, appetite, body temperature, but most importantly, mood.
In this sense, Ecstasy is similar to antidepressants like Prozac. In fact, the two drugs are sister stimulants, though whereas Prozac releases serotonin in relatively small doses over a short period of time (and inhibits serotonin's reuptake), Ecstasy floods the brain with it -- to a degree, depending on how much is taken and how often, that may cause memory loss, serotonin imbalances and possibly brain damage.
Since Ecstasy was made illegal in 1986, however, research on its dangers or potential has been limited by the FDA. John Hopkins neurotoxicologist George Ricaurte has found that serotonin levels are significantly lower in animals that has been given even small amounts of Ecstasy. But his work isn't conclusive. No one knows enough about how serotonin works in the brain to say anything definite about Ecstasy's long-term effects -- whether, for example, damaged serotonin cells can grow back or whether the therapeutic benefits of Ecstasy outweigh its potential neurotoxicity.
That is the reason MDMA's use and abuse has run a gauntlet similar to LSD's. Like LSD, the drug hit the street at the very moment psychiatrists began to understand it. By the early '80s, illegal drug labs were thriving. It became Dallas's hottest yuppie drug. Then it became the pharmacological darling of the dance scene: at gay clubs, at straight clubs and eventually at all-night techno-driven rave parties, where thousands of young people say they have found PLUR: peace, love, unity and respect, the contemporary equivalent of flower power.
In the past decade dozens of deaths have been connected to Ecstasy use. Some of those victims have simply expired on the dance floor from dehydration and overheating while on the drug. Others have been poisoned from pills sold as Ecstasy but containing MDMA substitutes such as PMA. But since deaths have been limited and dangers of MDMA are largely unknown its reputation as a wonder drug is growing.
Flower Power Transformed
At a recent conference in San Francisco called The State of Ecstasy nothing was more obvious than this fact. Aside from heated debated about the drug's potential health risks, and reports that people are taking multiple hits "as if it were candy," testimonies of Ecstasy's benefits were in the overwhelming majority. One 80-year-old man rose from the crowd and announced he had taken Ecstasy over 120 times and there were no signs of brain damage on his recent PET scan. Sue Stevens, who took the drug with her husband while he was dying of cancer, wept as she described how it allowed them to live out his last days in relative happiness.
But the drug's cultural significance was largely absent from the discussion. "I think it's popular because of the degree to which young people are alienated and struggling to come up with values. Through MDMA, they find community," said Charles Grob, a Harbor-UCLA Medical Center psychiatrist who has performed the only FDA-approved clinical trial on humans of the drug. Grob read me a passage from a 1986 interview he conducted with LSD "father" and Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman.
"People need a deep spiritual foundation for their lives," Hoffman said. "In older times it was religion, their dogmas, which people believed in, but today those dogmas no longer work." Still Hoffman added, "Young people are looking for meaningful experiences ... Some are looking for a happiness and satisfaction which is of the spiritual, not the materialistic world ... And of course, one of the ways young people are finding that is with psychedelic drugs."
No one -- not Grob or members of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research, which is leading an effort to legalize Ecstasy for medicinal purposes -- would dare say this directly, for fear of coming off like New Age druggies. That has been left to ravers who argue dancing on Ecstasy is their gateway to what the wider culture lacks.
"In a society in which there is little connection and in which family connections have broken down, we're looking for connections!" trumpeted Dustianne North, a PhD candidate in social welfare at UCLA, who made a rousing case for the rave scene at the conference. North went on to compare the "tribal," "healing" atmosphere of her subculture to the "numbing consumerism" and competitiveness of the mainstream. The audience -- of drug reformers, researchers, ravers and social workers -- responded to North's words with a blast of applause.
Certainly North and the millions of people who are experimenting with Ecstasy are just the latest example of a drug counterculture that has existed since the 1960s. But what is interesting is how many of them have integrated Ecstasy use into a rhetoric of self-healing. What is even stranger is that Ecstasy's popularity has run neck-in-neck with the rise of a new class of user-friendly antidepressants, the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), which one out of 8 Americans has tried, according to a 2000 ABC news poll.
Together, what these two drug phenomena, one illegal, the other legal, seem to indicate is that Americans are getting used to the idea of finding happiness in a pill. Dr. Peter Kramer, author of the bestselling Listening to Prozac, calls this "cosmetic pharmacology." But among social critics, there is heated discussion about whether Americans are sadder than they used to be or have just become intolerant to suffering.
In his book Life the Movie, cultural critic Neal Gabler has argued that Americans are indeed more depressed now than 50 years ago because they are inundated with Hollywood and soap opera narratives and, in comparison, their lives seem empty and dull. Likewise, Harvard scholar Robert Putnam has argued that widespread malaise is a function of widespread community breakdown. In an e-mail exchange published by Salon.com novelists Rick Moody and Mary Gaitskill concluded, simply, that it is "un-American to be sad."
"This surely comes from the notion that capitalism can quench our thirst with the application of a product ... sadness is simply something to be treated with antidepressant meds and otherwise need not be spoken of," wrote Moody. In response, Gaitskill wrote: "[P]eople will always want to avoid pain, to avoid those who are in pain, and so will be vulnerable to anyone or anything that seems to promise permanent avoidance."
Whether or not Americans have become sadder in the postwar era will remain disputed for generations to come. But what sociologists will certainly hone in on is how, 30-odd years after the launch of the personal growth movement, self-healing has shifted from shrinks and gurus to a variety of sorrow-eradication pills. Yet the use of Ecstasy will likely raise more eyebrows than the SSRIs, since the drug not only temporarily squashes sorrow but, for some, helps to get at its root causes.
As Ann Shulgin, the wife and fellow guinea pig of Ecstasy's rediscover, put it: "MDMA gives you a change of perspective. What you tend to see through is the thing you take for granted. If it is a relationship, then that's what you see through. If it is the culture, then you might understand the degree to which you have been brainwashed."