Emily Huber

Is it Really Ecstasy?

EcstasyJulia doesn't dig it when her friends are high on Ecstasy. To her they seem a little too friendly with strangers. "E-Love" is so gross to watch. What will happen when they aren't high anymore and all the love is gone?

Still one of Julia's* friends says Ecstasy changed his life. Another met her boyfriend while on the drug. Some take "E" every weekend. And she's even read that marriage counselors used to give it to their patients.

So she's thinking about trying it sometime. She goes to raves anyway, why not try to get "happy" too?

Friend or foe?

But before Julia or you pop E, there are some facts to digest first. "Club drugs are not harmless 'fun drugs,'" warns Alan Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Research shows these drugs can have long-lasting negative effects on the brain, altering memory function and motor skills." NIDA received $54 million in government funding last December to launch a U.S. campaign to "combat the increasing use of club drugs," especially Ecstasy (also known as MDMA).

So what's the real story? The debate comes down to whether Ecstasy should be touted for its feel-good powers or be clumped in with all the other "Just Say No" offenders due to its flaws.

Ecstasy works on chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters, primarily one called "serotonin." Serotonin regulates your mood, your sleep cycles and is the chemical affected by Prozac and similar anti-depressants. Ecstasy basically tells your brain to release a lot of serotonin over a very short period of time-that explains the sudden mood changes and the drug's other physical side effects.

Short-term side effects

Side effects of Ecstasy can range from mildly uncomfortable to life-threatening physical and emotional reactions.

Body temperature: Your temperature goes up when you take Ecstasy-like a fever. Dancing enthusiastically in a hot warehouse doesn't help your body cool off, so it's no surprise that one of the most common Ecstasy-related injuries is heatstroke.
"So what's the real story? The debate comes down to whether Ecstasy should be touted for its feel-good powers or be clumped in with all the other "Just Say No" offenders due to its flaws."

Dehydration: Along with increased body temperature, you sweat and urinate a lot if you take Ecstasy. You should replace these fluids with at least a pint of water an hour or risk a serious case of dehydration.

Other effects: Like cocaine, Ecstasy can cause muscle tension, teeth clenching, anxiety, paranoia and increases in heart rate and blood pressure.

Even if you know the common side effects of Ecstasy and are taking steps to minimize them, you can't be sure how the drug is specifically going to affect you.

Lorca Rossman, a senior resident in emergency medicine at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif., says it's hard to know why one 19-year-old can take a dose of E and dance all night, and another can do the same thing and end up in the emergency room. "What we do know is that it's unpredictable," she said.

Long-term effects

The results of using Ecstasy over the long haul are as equally unclear and cause for controversy. Because the drug affects serotonin, which we have barely begun to understand, it's hard to say how Ecstasy will affect its users in the future.

What any Ecstasy user can tell you, however, is that when you come down, you'll likely feel depressed. This dip in mood (sometimes called "Terrible Tuesday," "Blue Tuesday" or "Suicide Tuesday") can last anywhere from a few hours to a week. It makes sense-you've used an enormous amount of serotonin in a short period of time and your body has to catch-up.

Medical research points to the possibility that Ecstasy may cause permanent changes in your brain's ability to regulate mood and may affect memory. There also is evidence that people who develop a rash that looks like acne after taking E, could be at risk for liver damage. Despite rumors, the drug does not drain your spinal fluid (you'd need a hole in your spine to do that) or cause Parkinson's disease.

Check your head

Possibly as serious as the physical effects of Ecstasy are the psychological ones. Taking it can be an intense emotional experience, one that you may not be prepared for. Dr. Rossman says that while some Ecstasy users arrive at Highland Hospital with physical problems, "the majority of people that we see are having a more psychological reaction. They just can't handle it."

Many take Ecstasy for the first time at a hot, crowded, noisy party filled with strangers. Perhaps that's not the ideal setting for the intensity you could feel. Ecstasy revelers also deal with the disappointment of post-E reality. After experiencing the near-effortless interaction between the drug's users, the challenges of day-to-day relationships may seem frustrating, even overwhelming.

DanceSafe's director Emanuel Sferios warns that although the drug is not physically addictive, there's a huge potential for psychological addiction. Many users can remember their first weeks after trying Ecstasy for the first time, planning their entire lives around their next "roll."

DanceSafe's philosophy is that while no drug is guaranteed to be safe, education goes a long way in reducing the dangers associated with Ecstasy use. Like Julia, you may not be sure if you want to try Ecstasy. But before she decides the experience is worth the physical, emotional and legal risk, she is doing her homework. And so should you.

*name has been changed to protect identity.

Emily Huber writes about dance culture. She lives in San Francisco.

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