Experiencing Ecstasy 

  Experiencing Ecstasy 

Posted by FoM on January 21, 2001 at 20:03:01 PT
By Matthew Klam  
Source: New York Sunday Times Magazine 

The pill was white and smelled like No-Doz. Although it had come to us in the mail inside a tennis ball, it was legal then, fresh from a lab in Texas. No rumors, no culture surrounding it. We took it on a whim, on blind faith -- because it was Saturday and there was nothing better to do. It was late afternoon, warm for November in New Hampshire. Starting that day in 1984, and until May 1986, I ate Ecstasy, once or sometimes twice a month. During that same time I realized that the plan I'd made for my life (I was 20 years old) was useless. 
I kind of woke up. I didn't start wearing flowers in my hair, but I got more excited to live, made a new plan that felt freer -- a plan that sent me in the right direction. And I still wonder what the drug had to do with that. Maybe nothing. (How can a drug do anything for you? Generally I hate drugs. I don't even take Advil.) It's impossible to say. But because it was inside my noodle, I can't separate out the Ecstasy. I went to U.N.H., a crummy state school in the middle of some cow fields. A guy named Kelly called from S.M.U. in Texas. He went to high school with my friends Jim and Carl. Over the summer, S.M.U. had gone dry. But the student body had found something to replace liquor, Kelly said. The bars were full of people on a drug called Ecstasy. "I want to send you something that's going to change your life," he said. It was my junior year. I had a B-minus average and zits on my face. I'd already moped halfway to graduation. I was majoring in philosophy because I didn't know what to study. I didn't know what I'd do after college; I had no plans other than a vague idea that I would be a zillionaire by age 30. I spent most of my energy getting ready to go out and party. I didn't find solace in school or books or sports. I didn't have a trust fund or parents who pushed me to achieve. I had a record collection and a floor clogged with dirty laundry. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights I rubbed on a cologne called Drakkar Noir and drank 10 beers. During the week I fell into such black moods that friends steered clear of me. Sigma Beta was my frat. At our house, intellectual stimulation was subordinate to the pledge program. Do you know that you can pull someone around on a wet floor using just a toilet plunger suctioned onto his head? I spent my time demanding squat thrusts and smearing mustard on the heads of blindfolded, scared freshmen. Alcohol-fueled brawls were common. We had a black belt named Ray ready to jump in and pound people. I'd personally been in two fistfights. Both times I was bigger; both times I froze so they could punch me. I had nothing I could imagine fighting for. I had no hobbies other than weightlifting. (I could bench 240!) But I had money from my summer job delivering auto parts, and because I came from New York, I had cosmopolitan tastes that set me apart. I was social chairman of the fraternity -- I ordered the kegs -- and was popular, an outgoing member of the Greek system. I had a Nastassia Kinski poster on my wall that blew everybody away. I was angry, sarcastic, lost.  The first time I took Ecstasy, I was in my room in Sigma Beta fraternity, second floor, facing the street. My girlfriend, Carol, and a bunch of friends had gathered to try it. We put on the Beatles' "white album" and swallowed the pills; after a while the effect trickled in. The six or seven of us were talking as though we hadn't had a chance to see one another in a year. I felt happier than I'd been 10 minutes before. A half-hour later a feeling came over me somewhere between the looseness that follows a good workout and the euphoria of winning the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes. I sat there rubbing my arm and thought, "This is the softest sweater in the universe." (In that first wave, as the drug comes on, sensory awareness balloons.) Inside the gerbil treadmill that is my brain, I stopped and blinked, exhaled and looked around. My mind was clear. "I am so happy," I thought. Although I wouldn't have rushed to operate heavy machinery, I didn't feel stoned or daydreamy. Unlike classic psychedelics, MDMA -- or, as it's known to scientists, methylenedioxymethamphetamine -- doesn't disrupt your basic sense of who you are. You barely even feel weird. Also, it doesn't scramble your external perceptions, except that soft things feel softer, music sounds better. It was in no way hallucinogenic. With Ecstasy, I had simply stepped outside the worn paths in my brain and, in the process, gained some perspective on my life. It was an amazing feeling. Small inconsistencies became obvious. "I need money, I have a $500 motorcycle that I'm too scared to ride, so why not sell it?" So did big psychological ones: "The more angry I am at myself, the more critical I am of my girlfriend. Why should I care how Carol chews her gum?" Ecstasy nudges you to think, very deeply, about one thing at a time. (It wasn't that harsh LSD feeling, where every thought seems like an absurd paradox -- like the fact that we're all, deep down, just a bunch of monkeys.) I yawned once or twice, but it didn't presage sleepiness. I felt like some reptile quadrant of my brain had been soothed. My emotions, my memory, my sense of smell -- they were all as accessible as a photo album on my lap. I stared at Carol, transfixed by her eyes. I found myself in possession of this capacity to accept all of her, and all human frailty. Everybody opened up. Scott, my weightlifting partner, swung his arm over my shoulder and squeezed me to him and thanked me for being his friend. My roommate, Tom, brought me a glass of water, and his thoughtfulness rocked me to my soul. We all just talked. Carol said her mother was thinking of joining A.A. Tom realized he loved a passage from a business-admin book so much he had to read it to us. Dave's mom had recently been the victim of a violent assault; he'd already told me about it briefly, but here he ran through the event and his reactions to it un-self-consciously, letting go of the humiliation and awkwardness. This was the beginning of a long night of feeling uncharacteristically undefensive, comfortable and kind. And: all afternoon, all night, I didn't hate myself. People have turned to mind-altering substances since the beginning of time in search of enlightenment. But while many other drugs, from ayahuasca to nitrous oxide, produce euphoria, Ecstasy creates not just a rush but a singular kind of emotional elevation -- you are launched on a hot-air balloon ride that floats over the pitfalls of typical humanity. The what ifs, the self-doubts, are knocked flat, and instead a hunger for human connection and a desire to empathize firmly take hold. No other drug produces this kind of feeling. That day I had a tingling awareness that something important was happening inside me: a bubbling birth of new wonder. The slate of lifelong guilt was being gently wiped clean. I'd discovered something new, something that worked, and I'd found it without adult supervision. All of my neck, back, shoulder, elbow and knee pain from weightlifting injuries vanished. Ecstasy's a powerful analgesic. It's also a whopper of an antidepressant. Whereas Prozac-type SSRI antidepressants keep your brain from emptying reservoirs of serotonin too quickly, Ecstasy floods your brain with the stuff. Proponents say it improves memory, which may explain why you feel so connected to the continuum of your life. A subtle, purifying something descends like a cool cotton blanket. You feel restored, energized. MDMA is chemically related to amphetamines, so it raises your heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature slightly. You're warm. You're not hungry. Your mouth turns as dry as the dust on a Las Vegas rooftop parking lot. Eventually, you start grinding your jaw so tightly you'd need a jackhammer to open it, and your head is sore the next day from the grinding. But at the time, you're not really aware of these odd side effects. You have everything you need. Just breathing is really good on this stuff. My friends and I walked outside and sat out on the grass in front of Sigma Beta fraternity and watched the sunset as the crowds from the football game that had just ended flooded across campus. I felt flawless love for my friends, down to their barracuda jackets and college perms and bad New England accents. I had nostalgia for the moment I was living. I experienced a kind of wordless glory. This was the best I'd ever felt in my life. The static passing of a Saturday afternoon had been broken. You'll Never Forget Your First Time: Today Ecstasy comes in a hundred different colors and sizes, churned out pneumatically from underground factories in the Netherlands run by international criminal organizations. While consumption of drugs like cocaine and marijuana among American teenagers has stabilized in the last decade, Ecstasy's popularity has increased exponentially. Last year, United States customs officials seized 9.3 million pills. In 1997, they seized 400,000 pills. I live in Washington, and over the past several months I've met people in this area who are experimenting with Ecstasy the way I once experimented with beer: alone, at home, with chips and salsa on a Tuesday afternoon. I've met 14-year-olds who took it on a bus ride to the Everglades; college-age kids tripping in small groups at home; ravers floating all night on Ecstasy at dance clubs; and a doctor and a P.R. exec, both in their late 30's, married with children, who hired a band and bought 40 hits for a friend's backyard barbecue. In the last 15 years, Ecstasy has acquired a complicated history, becoming the central ingredient in a huge underground movement. It has become, variously, a kinder and gentler party lube, an explosive catalyst in the search for meaning of life, as well as just another druggie escape fantasy. It has ruined some people's lives. My emotions, my memory, my sense of smell -- they were all as accessible as a photo album on my lap. I had nostalgia for the moment I was living. There is a wealth of scientific evidence suggesting that Ecstasy, in high doses, will alter neurons in the brain in the short term and, potentially, for life. And though much more research is needed to ascertain the functional consequences of these brain changes, in some tests, heavy users demonstrated a reduced ability to solve complex problems on intelligence tests and showed signs of short-term memory loss. Scientists also suspect that Ecstasy messes with the serotonergic nerve network to the extent that it might permanently lower serotonin levels, thus harming a person's ability to feel happiness. It's known among users that acute despair can follow the days after an X trip. (That never happened to me, but for a couple of hazy, happy days while coming down, I had trouble coming up with the right vocabulary word, anything over two syllables.) Almost universally, a better self emerges that first time you take Ecstasy. But replicating that experience is close to impossible. The impact attenuates over time. I recently spoke to a Hollywood filmmaker who described his first Ecstasy experience as profound and life-changing. It helped make him more expressive -- with friends, with actors. But after chasing that initial high for a couple months, every other weekend, he stopped. "Very quickly the highs were getting more muted, and the comedown was becoming more evident and more miserable," he said. Users consistently describe that initial high as one of the greatest experiences of their lives. Jennie, 20, is a college student who lives in upstate New York. We met during a December visit she made to Washington. She has the delicate features and fair complexion of a folk-music princess. The first time she took Ecstasy, she told me, was a year ago. It inspired deep reflections. "I decided that one day I'd have children," she said, with striking frankness. "Before, I really did not think I was going to have children. I didn't think I'd be a very good mother, because I'd been kind of physically and mentally abused by my father. But then I realized, 'I'm going to love my children and I'm going to take care of them,' and my decision didn't change afterward." She also says that on her first Ecstasy trip, she began to forgive her father, realizing that "there's no such thing as a bad person." That first rush of empathy and understanding hit Jennie so hard that, while walking across a park, she felt sorrow for anyone less fortunate than her: her mother, her confused father, her brother struggling to stay out of jail. "I even felt bad for the trees," she told me. "I couldn't believe that we'd put the cement and the sidewalk there to constrict their growth." Jennie doesn't go to dance clubs. She doesn't like crowds. She has never been drunk. She's a fragile young person struggling with a difficult history. But starting a year ago, Ecstasy thrust some revelations on her, and since then she has come to understand them better, which has made her stronger. Maybe she would've stumbled upon these realizations on her own. Maybe not. Kyle, 21, a student in Florida and a friend of Jennie's, had heard amazing stories about Ecstasy, but assumed they were exaggerated. And he worried that the pills might be fake. Big cities are flooded with substances sold as Ecstasy, and the difficulty in trying to assess a specific pill is considerable. If people say the green ones are supposed to be better, did they mean pale, solid green or flecked with black? Is it imprinted with a Z, or is that an N? Last year, bunk pills sold as Ecstasy killed nine people in Chicago and Orlando. Kyle waited until his sophomore year, taking his first dose in July 1999 with a small group of friends, burdened with expectations. And yet, he said, "that night I had a very incredible experience." He explained to me that, before taking Ecstasy, "I had been feeling a little bit suicidal." No one knew. "I wasn't hospitalized, or in therapy, but the feeling was there. But that night kind of reopened my eyes to the world, to see all these new things in it. I was really excited." That night Kyle had another epiphany. He had been so furious at having his car repeatedly broken into that he contemplated sleeping in it with a weapon so he could catch the next crook in the act and attack him. But during that night, the anger passed. "I just figured whoever would do that had no hope. And I let all that go, and it made living easier." All from a $20 pill. A potent drug that changes you immediately is a lot to handle when no one in your family tree knows what the hell it is and society tells you you're killing yourself and you're an outlaw for doing it. Especially when you feel, in your heart, that you've stumbled on something potentially good. You want to share its benefits. "You know Batman, right?" Kyle said. "He has plenty of money and he doesn't have to work, so he spends his life fixing the problems of the world. I've started to think that a real Batman of today would become a psychiatrist who dispenses Ecstasy. You go out when people are having a real problem, you fix their problem. Then you go back into hiding." Kyle has a squeaky, boyish voice. He's enthralled with computers and has always had an intuitive feel for them. He's got big plans for the future and a new outlook. But lately, he's excited about the new freedom in his head; using that techie mind that made him an adept computer hacker as a kid, he's working on maintaining the perfect high over whatever length of time, from six hours to three days. This isn't exactly the spiritual-enlightenment thing. "I guarantee you, sometime in the next two years, I will plan out an actual experience where it's not just about fun," he promised. "It'll be about growing up or learning something. But when I use it now it's just for recreation." For Kyle, Ecstasy these days isn't even about lazy self-reflection. "Most of the time I stay at home and have a great time with friends," he said. "We don't talk much. We do things to each other to make each other feel good -- not sexual things, but massaging or going for a walk or dancing, stuff that doesn't do anything for you when you're sober, but feels good when you're on Ecstasy." There are similarities between Jennie and Kyle. Both encountered Ecstasy while facing personal difficulties. Neither had sought the help of a shrink or mentor or priest. But while Jennie's taking time out -- six weeks between Ecstasy trips -- and heeding the process of introspection, Kyle's just rolling. He's not trying to use Ecstasy as a way of sorting out his troubles. He's trying to burn them away. There's something about people like Kyle -- I've met a few -- who happen to be into technology and drugs. They're still hacking, but this time, they're hacking into their own minds. They're trying to beat nature at its own game -- to eliminate personal pain without any of the stigma or struggle associated with something like therapy. The goal is on-demand enlightenment. It's about a coconut and a hammer and a chisel. "With hacking," Kyle told me, "I liked the idea of being able to do anything I wanted." Now his brain is a code he can break; access bought cheaply, repeated as often as necessary. What had Ecstasy become for Kyle? An agent for change, or a method for escape, self-erasure, a way to annihilate ugly stuff? If he'd already had a propensity to push uncomfortable feelings under the rug, what would Ecstasy then become for him? An expensive way of getting blotto? While Jennie has taken 7 Ecstasy pills over 14 months, Kyle, in the same time span, has taken 150. "After the first time I did it, I didn't do it for a month," he recalled. "That's supposed to be the maximum amount of time you need to build your serotonin back up. The next time was like three weeks and then was like a week and then it was like every weekend." The more aggressively you search for the most profound experience of your life, the more rigid, narrowing, dispiriting and routine it becomes. That's how a user like Jennie becomes a user like Kyle. In his book "The Natural Mind," Dr. Andrew Weil writes: "The chief advantage of drugs is that they are quick and effective, producing desired results without requiring effort. Their chief disadvantage is that they fail us over time; used regularly and frequently, they . . . limit our options and freedom." Every once in a while Jennie and her boyfriend, and maybe another friend or two, take Ecstasy. They talk about fixing up the apartment, going to grad school. While tripping, Jennie usually runs into those hurdles from her past: the beatings, other insidious abuse. "Growing up, I was one of those dorky kids people made fun of," she told me. "Ecstasy helped me understand other people and interact across boundaries I may not have otherwise." When we met, she cried for a moment, telling me about it, and then sat up straight and winked, as if to say she'd been through this before and survived. During her time on Ecstasy, Jennie has ventured into some pretty dark places. Despite that, she's been able to keep the drug at arm's length, while using it to face the real world head-on. Kyle, who knows the risk of dosing in an unventilated dance club, hasn't been so lucky. He'll tell you it's not addictive -- though he takes three pills in a night. For all those blissful weekends, he doesn't even seem happy. He's alternately euphoric and agitated. He might be better off seeing a counselor on campus to get some of that same feeling of enlightenment. As for how MDMA has affected his brain, it's not clear. There might not be any downside to taking it as much as he has -- or he might be brain-damaged. "There's no doubt," Kyle said, "that if you compare the first time you take Ecstasy and the hundredth time, you're going to have had a better experience the first time. Is it because you're doing damage to your brain, or because of tolerance? Or is it that the first time you don't know what's going to happen, and it blows you away because it's new?" Does It Turn Your Spine Into Mango Chutney? Scientists justify the criminalization of ecstasy by saying that it kills, but given the massive amounts being ingested around the world in what must be the worst environment possible -- a hot club with an inadequate drinking-water supply can cause a user to experience dehydration, organ failure, brain damage -- comparatively few users end up in the hospital. In 1999, 554,000 people ended up in the emergency room for problems related to cocaine, heroin and other drugs. Fewer than 3,000 went to the emergency room because of Ecstasy. Inspired by the fear of an epidemic, government and health institutions have, since 1985, spent millions to pinpoint the destructive action of the drug. In one series of studies, rats and monkeys given large and/or repeated doses of Ecstasy showed a partial loss of serotonin neurons -- specifically, the sites that reabsorb serotonin after it has been transmitted. George A. Ricaurte, one of the researchers involved in these studies, has concluded that even one dose of MDMA can lead to permanent brain damage. Such alarmist conclusions haven't exactly convinced users. "In the beginning," Kyle recalled, "I would go to the National Institute on Drug Abuse home page and read what they'd have to say about it and then I'd compare it to my own experience. It's so far off that basically -- and I think a lot of kids do this -- I lost faith in what the U.S. government had to say about Ecstasy." Back in 1985, false rumors of side effects from Ecstasy doing terrible things to you were circulated. The first one I heard was that Ecstasy liquifies your spine, an idea that impinged on my delight. The second one was that it caused Parkinson's. Neither one has turned out to be true (so far). But I remember waking up and thinking, "Hey, my spine hasn't liquefied yet!" I remember touching my back to check, and then making jokes about it at breakfast. "Watch out, my spine is still soft!" I'm not saying that MDMA is good for your body. In high doses, it clearly makes physical changes in the serotonergic nerve network of the brain. But no one knows yet what such changes mean in terms of human behavior. According to a recent study in Brain Research, Prozac-style antidepressants produce some morphological abnormalities in the serotonin nerve network of rats that resemble changes seen with Ecstasy taken in high levels. Yet few people advocate the banning of Prozac. Meanwhile, no serious science has been done on the kind of periodic dosages of Ecstasy I took, a little more than once a month. (In one study, researchers gave monkeys and rats, over four days, an amount of Ecstasy equivalent to what I ate in six months.) I heard rumors of data from the well-known Ricaurte studies that may well be significant -- about a "no effect" finding in low-dose users -- but these data have never been published, either because they're wrong or flawed or who knows why. You can wreck your liver and die on a bottle of Tylenol. Too much aspirin causes gastrointestinal bleeding. Too much lithium damages your thyroid and kidney. The point is that it matters how much you take of a drug. There's a saying in medicine: the difference between a poison and a cure is the dose. Can Ecstasy ever be a medicine, an aid to serious therapeutic investigations? Some doctors think so. Richard Yensen, a Maryland therapist who in the 1970's gave a drug similar to Ecstasy to his patients, has written, "MDMA comes as close as possible to psychotherapy in a pill." How much different is Ecstasy than legal psychotropic drugs -- and would some mildly depressed people be better off taking Ecstasy once in a while than Prozac every day for years? To address these questions, a few human experiments with MDMA have taken place. A government-approved study in Spain has just begun in which Ecstasy is being offered to treat rape victims for whom no treatment has worked, based on the premise that MDMA "reduces the fear response to a perceived emotional threat" in therapy sessions. A Swiss study in 1993 yielded positive anecdotal evidence on its effect on people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. And a study in California may soon begin in which Ecstasy is administered to end-stage cancer patients suffering from depression, existential crises and chronic pain. The F.D.A. will be reviewing the protocol for Stage 2 of the trial; results are expected in 2002. In general, two big problems with Ecstasy have been ascertained. One is that Ecstasy is not always MDMA. Manufacturing MDMA requires a stable laboratory condition, and impure samples can be lethal. The other problem is hyperthermia, particularly for ravers. MDMA gives you tons of energy to dance for five straight hours, raises your body temperature and causes dehydration. Though you're not hallucinating, you're so swept up in that terrific sense of well-being that you don't feel as though you're overheating, even when you are. And if you drink too much water to quench that terrific thirst, you can die from thinned-out blood. This is what killed Leah Betts, an 18-year-old Englishwoman, in 1995. She took just one hit of Ecstasy at home, then over the next few hours proceeded to drink around three liters of water. In effect, she drowned herself. The Conversion Experience: For me, there was life before Ecstasy, and then there was life after Ecstasy. I had more confidence and a sense of stability that I hadn't had before. First came little changes, like eating brown rice. Then came the big ones, like making friends with a Franciscan monk from one of my theology classes, sitting and talking with him on a Friday afternoon where before I was too busy getting primed. Over the next few months I began asking my professors out to lunch. One of them gave me a book, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." I read it, and then, like Malcolm X in solitary confinement, I read the dictionary, beginning with "aardvark." The Ecstasy feeling stuck around for the weeks between trips. My normal depressive responses to life were ablated by this strong medicine, and it helped me function. I applied to the Peace Corps, and explained why to my father. He agreed with my logic, which was a major event. I went to films on American involvement in El Salvador. I went to the Way of the Peaceful Warrior Weekend Retreat. One day, fumbling around my room, unprepared and late for class, I smashed my funny bone on a bookcase. Every family has a chosen method for self-destruction; the temper tantrum was ours. Stuff like this had been happening to me all my life -- I'd smack into some inanimate object, then lose control. This time, after losing it, I reacted differently. I had known a better state of mind while on Ecstasy, and it raised my standards. I untied my shoes, turned off the lights, closed the shades and lit a candle. I sat there with my legs crossed and breathed deeply and felt different. Five months after my first trip, I made copies of an article about Ecstasy and posted them on the bulletin board of my fraternity, above a sign that read: "Any questions? Ask Klam." I bought a bunch of pills to sell. It wasn't about making money. I was bringing my emotionally, spiritually enfeebled fraternity brothers real love, better friendships. But I wasn't the only one saving the world. The drug had now swept through college campuses all over the country. The fervor in Dallas caught Senator Lloyd Bentsen's attention. He asked the D.E.A. to invoke an emergency ban under the Controlled Substances Act, which made headlines, and created the sense of a deadly epidemic. In June 1985, MDMA was put in Schedule 1, the most restrictive category ("no currently acceptable medical use," "high potential for abuse"), alongside heroin. So now it was illegal. But I couldn't keep quiet about it. I made my brother do it. He liked it, but I really wanted my parents to take it. I loved them too much to leave them out in the cold. My mom nodded, sitting at the kitchen table, a clownish smile of disbelief. My sister stared at me. My dad laughed in my face. "How did you go from suffering and miserable, before Ecstasy, to happy all the time?" he asked. That summer, with school out of session, I had no drug connection. I lived in a tiny house by the water in Portsmouth, N.H., and waited on tables during the day and meditated every night in my closet. I went to an ashram in upstate New York and learned techniques for breathing. I worked on my inner observer and reached points where waves of love washed over me. See, I'd felt so good on Ecstasy, and I didn't want to go back to the grimy old me with all my messy inconsistencies. But after my blissful meditations I had no idea what to do with myself. I'd go get drunk and eat a pint of ice cream and pass out. I returned to college. Now that Ecstasy was illegal, the stuff we were getting was in a capsule and sometimes not as strong. Despite that, I was so happy when a new shipment of Ecstasy arrived, I would dance around the house. (I had moved off campus, seven miles away, with some other guys.) Countless parties followed, riddled with confessions, blushing, closeness, everybody startlingly open and intelligent, giddy to talk. We said things to one another we never would have said without Ecstasy. We were an Ecstasy household. I remember standing one night in the bathroom as the Ecstasy kicked in -- my jaw locked, my mind screaming through endless space, my heart throbbing -- and brushing my teeth as if I were going to brush them into diamonds. Scott walked in, bug-eyed, chewing on his lip, wondering whether this batch of drugs was as good as the last batch. "Are you psyched?" he asked. "Let me see if your pupils are dilated." I continued to feed off the sense that my human side had been cured and I could be cool and change the world. When the weather turned colder I started knitting a sweater for Carol, because I didn't want to consume store-bought garbage. I got a little arrogant about everything. I'd taken a class on feminism that summer, and now I was attending Take Back the Night marches to show solidarity. I joined Amnesty International and wrote an article for the school newspaper speaking out against capital punishment. I promised myself I'd learn how to ski. Over the next few months I took Ecstasy with a dozen friends at a cabin in Maine, at a 10,000 Maniacs concert, on a camping trip. Of course these subsequent trips didn't match the first time. We started to keep some weed for the end of the night, to stop the feeling from leaving, otherwise things might've turned awkward over how happy we'd been all night. (You're glad but also sheepish the next day for how warm and squishy you've been.) We'd drink Crystal Light and vodka as the drug faded and drive to campus and have a whole second party. As the highs became less intense, I realized Ecstasy wasn't going to be enough to keep us from floating down to earth after all. But I had other things to keep me happy. I made trips to the White Mountains. I began writing poetry and keeping a journal. I bought my first Laurie Anderson album. I did whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, because it was for my spiritual development. I broke up with Carol, who'd graduated and moved to Boston, realizing it was time to move on with my life. On the drive back from breaking up, I ate a hit of Ecstasy. I never had a bad time on it, and I never felt depressed afterward. Ecstasy didn't turn bad for me. But it's not that simple. The Rave:At a Korean restaurant in Annandale, Va., Legba stretched out on the booth across the table. He's thin and wiry with the narrow, angular face of a serious boy, a fast-talking, passionate young man eager to embrace his adult ideals. We were making plans for the rave we'd be attending a few days later. Legba is a 21-year-old junior who attends college in Virginia. He grew up just south of D.C. and has a good-natured disgust for suburban values. He has an intimidating G.P.A. and talks so quickly he sometimes swallows half his sentences. Before his first dose of Ecstasy, he said, he was "a very alienated person." That has changed. "Since I've started rolling I'm healthier," he said. "I don't smoke, I don't drink, I exercise, I take vitamins. I've gotten interested in meditation. This whole scene for me has been the best thing personally. I've become a better human being. I've become much more calm, much more considerate. I don't freak out about stupid things anymore." It was a transformation that seemed to mirror mine. He was dressed that day in a black shirt, gigantic Illig parachute pants, dark socks and sneakers. Legba is small, and the pants dwarfed him. "Back rubs, I love them. Glow sticks, it's all great. Ecstasy is a very social drug. It's not something that you do and is only relevant to you. It's like, you do the drug, but by doing it, everybody else is doing it, too, somehow. It builds community." Legba is a politically minded guy who says things like, "Founding a country on a Protestant work ethic is a mind-crime of magnificent proportions." He used to be an awkward teenager who dressed Goth, ate too much candy and spent his afternoons spray-painting graffiti. Legba was a computer hacker like Kyle, but he eventually grew bored with hacking and got into animation. In 11th grade he got thrown off the track team because he skipped a meet to attend an anime Japanese-cartoon convention. Legba has taken Ecstasy a half-dozen times. "The first parties I went to were kind of life-changing events," he said, "because people were totally accepting of everybody, however they looked or danced, and that completely blew me away." While he said he loved the rave world, he didn't seem deluded by it. "The rave scene can get a little too PLUR-y," he joked. (PLUR stands for "Peace, Love, Unity, Respect" and has become an overused rave mantra.) Legba seemed to understand the danger inherent in losing himself to a culture that surrounds a drug: "Some people think that if they take Ecstasy they will ascend to some heavenly station and stay there for the rest of their lives. It's sad." He didn't seem to overestimate the power of it, either. "Ecstasy can't turn a wilfully ignorant mind into a liberated one. It takes a hunger for liberation." He laughed. "But I'm not going to lie: I don't do Ecstasy just for liberation. I also do it to get twisted and have fun." A week later, Legba and I met up at a rave. Unlike the early underground scene, this dance party wasn't being held out in a field somewhere. It was at a Northeast D.C. club called the Edge. Outside the club, college-age bodies poured out of parking lots, funneled out of narrow streets. There was an unspoken dress code: huge pants, goggles, funny wigs, Pokémon backpacks, fuzzy horseprint skirts. The next generation was ready for the future in nose rings and halter tops, wearing water bottles on their belt loops. I wondered if I was the only person here not on X. At 10:30, Legba and his friend Sarah arrived. They had taken hits of Ecstasy in the car on the way over; it hadn't kicked in yet for either of them, but Legba was already wired. He moved like a spring-loaded marionette, displaying an insomniacal physical energy, dancing a little. When he bounced, both feet left the ground. The Edge was a rundown series of linked rooms with a patio in the back. The front room had some scissoring lasers, black carpeting and mirrors, and the party's promoters had installed art objects that night made of skinny balloons and stretched Lycra sculptures with funny lights moving across them. A long row of bench-seat bleachers by the entrance was filled with people lying together, lolling and talking and massaging each other. Across the room four legs emerged from underneath a mountain of balloons. I looked under there. A girl dressed like an angel squatted beside a guy's head and gave him a chiropractic adjustment, twisting his head, cracking his neck, her cigarette and angel's wings dangling over his face. "I gotta go dance," Legba said. Under the colored lights he did a kind of stand-in-place run -- a move I heard somebody describe as "Nordic Tracking." Then the music sped up and he locked into the groove and got serious. His ponytail cut through the air behind him. I headed out to the patio area with its rock garden and Japanese maple tree. The patio dance floor was where they played techno. I felt this corny affection welling up for everyone as we danced to awful techno -- music that, incidentally, grows on you. We were having a great time. When I went to clubs at Legba's age, I knew them to be saturated with alcohol, and I never felt relaxed in one. Aggression and liquor and cocaine went together and created an air of menace. Here, people were absurdly nice. We bumped into each other softly. From the girl with the thing in her nose to the runty boy with the lip ring, there was an instant familial closeness, a crowd unity. The more aggressively you search for the most profound experience of your life, the more rigid, narrowing, dispiriting and routine it becomes. Up on the deck a bongo-drum circle had formed. Everybody was chatty and everybody was nice to everyone. We stood up there for an hour and watched the dance floor fill. Then the deck got more crowded. Along the fence, and on the ground where earlier you could walk, people sat cross-legged, knees against their chests. With nowhere to move, everybody was still smiling. Sarah made her way over to me. She wasn't crazy about her hit of Ecstasy. It wasn't strong enough. "My dream is to go to Amsterdam and get a bunch of pills at $5 apiece and get them back here and sell them to all my friends," she said. A young Sikh in a black turban and khakis offered to sell me Ecstasy. A shirtless guy with long dreadlocks offered to sell me Ecstasy. A thin white kid with a baseball hat, worn clothes and a burned-out look offered to sell me Ecstasy. Bodies poured onto the patio from inside the club. They pushed onto the deck, and I started to wonder. The deck was made of wood. Maybe it would fall on everybody underneath us. (Maybe, on Ecstasy, people bounce?) In front of me, a guy with battery-powered lights attached to his head bumped into a guy with battery-powered lights taped to his his vest. Since the days when I took Ecstasy, this is the third or fourth wave of popularity. I've always secretly wondered if people ended up taking Ecstasy at clubs because it cured the claustrophobia, that the club created the need. But maybe it went the other way: they took Ecstasy and then drove to a rave because, when the feeling hit, they didn't want to be sitting in their living rooms having a conversation about changing the world -- or themselves. Long, drawn-out philosophical probings are difficult and boring, and you need patience and the desire to look inside. No one knows you at a rave. That's the idea. You merge, you're part of the headless horde. You're certainly not talking about your family and your hopes and failures. It's just weird dancing and music endlessly looped in a collective rapture. Soaked with sweat, going till sunrise, you don't have to listen to the subtle insights you get on Ecstasy, those thoughts that come as soft as whispers. Alan Leshner of the National Institute on Drug Abuse tried to warn me that the spiritual-awakening experience that I had is an anomaly. "I think it's a very small percentage, maybe 5 percent, who get the kind of feeling you did," he told me. Of course people took it to get buzzed, I didn't disagree. But I thought it a spiritually flavored buzz. A Web site I consulted called has a feature called "pill reports" and is supposed to be a place for people to gather information on drugs for the sake of harm reduction. It has hundreds of entries exhibiting a state of grace, thoughtfully thanking the makers of MDMA. But it also has a lot of entries that read like this: "Dropped the first one at 4:20 with my man jimmy kradel. i was rollin my face off for 4 hours. then I took some right up the nose and it hit me like mike tyson. we were smokin weed all day too. what a incredible roll. i smoked 2 packs of newports." I made my way back to find Legba. After everything I'd read, all the mountains of warnings against hyperthermia -- overheating on Ecstasy -- I was shocked when I got to the jungle room and the temperature was, easily, nine hundred million degrees. Kids were lying on the floor, either because they'd died or fainted or because they hoped it might be cooler down there. The entire club was now a Tokyo subway car packed at rush hour. You had to put your arms over your head to squeeze through. In the matter of two hours, this place had become really uncomfortable -- no place for a spiritual awakening. Legba and I fought our way back outside and up the stairs to the wooden deck to get some air. He asked, "How many hugs did you get tonight?" "None." "In the old days did you guys used to give each other face massages and hand massages?" I tried to explain to him that this was before any massages. We were six guys living in a house, comfortable with our homophobia; no one was giving anyone massages. And though there were women who joined us, we didn't do any touchy-feely stuff. In a moment of empathy, Legba gave me a hug. I wondered if it was sincere or drug-induced, then felt rotten for wondering. He complained that he'd been stalling, stopping and starting, on his roll, all night. He joked about wanting to becoming an "e-tard," one of those kids who rolls around on the floor drooling. Maybe his pill was bunk. He decided to buy another pill. If the stuff was legal, he complained, this wouldn't happen all the time. I agreed. But it occurred to me later that Legba had raved the night before. The problem probably wasn't with the Ecstasy. Scientists argue about how long it takes the brain to restore normal levels of serotonin; it's somewhere between three days and seven years, but the problem here wasn't with shabby Ecstasy manufacturing. A person needed some time to recover between trips. The problem that night was in Legba's brain. A joint was passed. After Legba took a drag the passer mentioned that it had been laced with PCP. "Oh, great," Legba said. For the next hour he had blurred vision and felt like his head "was encased in aluminum" before the drug's short-lived effects wore off. He took another hit of Ecstasy at about 2:30 a.m. I went home. On the street outside the club I saw three boys in plaid shirts. I'd noticed them on the way in. Theyy were moving slowly now, hands in their pockets, their heads down -- nothing moves more slowly than a perfectly healthy young man with no girl and no more ideas at the end of the night. But there's community in that, right? In being miserable together. One guy leaned over, his shoulder sagging, and stared at something on the sidewalk for a long time. You learn a lot about life when your dreams don't come true, when nothing works out the way you planned. I thought of how the summer after I graduated from college, I gave Ecstasy up for good. After that I quit drinking alcohol. I'd gained total control over my politics, my body, the New Hampshire mountain ranges, my own rapture. I remember the last time I did take Ecstasy, a few weeks after graduation, a fellow house painter gave me a free hit. I went to a Harrison Ford movie that night. I don't remember the movie or the feeling of the drug. By then, the novelty had worn off. As I drove home from the rave, this song by Nine Inch Nails, called "Broken," came on the radio. It's an amazing song. It's enlightening and at the same time it's terrible -- it assaults you with sounds, as though you'd put a conch shell up to your ear to listen to a jet engine warming up. As you listen to it, it undoes all the music you ever heard before. It erases it. Every once in a while it's good to listen to "Broken"; it's hypnotic. But if you listen to it over and over again, you'll fry your listening gene. Built into the enlightening quality of it is this power to remove the ability to hear it. Legba left the Edge at 4:30 a.m. He'd forgotten his key in Sarah's car and had to ring the doorbell when he got home. His mom let him in. It was so late, but maybe the Ecstasy was working a little magic because at the threshold there Legba insisted that he and his mother hug. She told him to go right to bed. He demanded. She pulled rank and ordered him to get moving. Legba grew up in a small, lovely red house surrounded by trees, beside a church. Now, after being buffeted for hours by hurricanes of throbbing techno bass, shuddering astral hisses, a monsoon of sound amid a deluge of bodies, kids grinning into their shoes that they'd found it, the nirvana Tim Leary dangled in front of another generation -- now, after a long night on the cusp of revelation, at 5 in the morning, the house was awfully quiet in comparison. Legba didn't need to go to bed yet, and like any good evangelist at sunrise, he kept reaching out, this time to the only living thing that would let him near -- the family bird. He tried to talk to the cockatiel, Chippie. Dr. Doolittle opened the cage door and tried to grab it. He felt that love, undeniable, universal, blind. Legba tried to hug Chippie, more gently now, so as not to scare it. The bird screamed. It thrashed at him, it tried to bite and claw him. There was nothing left, nothing else to swallow or smoke or love, there was nowhere to go now. He gave up, there in Mom's kitchen, and went to bed. MDMA is different from all the drugs that came before it -- which explains why it has become the fastest-growing illegal substance in America. By Matthew KlamHow Bad It Is to Be 20 Years Old? Source: New York Sunday Times Magazine (NY) Author: Matthew Klam Published: January 21, 2001Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company Address: 229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036 Fax: (212) 556-3622 Contact: letters Website: Articles:Drug Chief Sees Big Rise in Ecstasy Use Empathy and the Ecstasy

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Comment #6 posted by dddd on January 22, 2001 at 07:16:31 PT

Excellent points J.R.I wanted to add this; After reflecting back on my early drug experience,and thinking about your explore/escape concept,,I came to the conclusion that there is a large gray area between the two. You could begin by trying to escape,and then find yourself exploring,and vice versa,an exploration is almost a form of escape itself....I wish I could find a doctor who would give me a prescription for LSD.I would be one of the only guys in the Medical LSD movement. There are uses for all drugs,and I'm quite certain most would agree that it is reasonable for a country to make laws that control some types of drugs,but it has obviously gone overboard here in America. I often wonder how long it will take until the outcry from the citizens is loud enough to change things,or if it is beyond the point of being able to control the federal leviathan.The inauguration sickened me.It was like some sort of surreal puppet show.Think about what happened,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,the next 4 years,,,no,,make that ,,,from this point on,,things are going to decay into bizzarre strangeness...I'm gonna have to pretend that things aren't that f#%ked...I think that's what most of the country does.It's a state of denial......Ever noticed how lots of people dont even want to talk about,or know about the atrocity,that the WoDs is?........ No one knows what's going on! And alot of people dont even want to know.Life is stressful,and complicated enough,political issues are something they choose not to keep track of. A good example of people who dont know what the f**k is going on,was the recent Clinton interview in Rolling Stone,where Clinton said something like,'I think posession of small amounts is legal most places.'He wasnt sure........................d..................d........................d..........................................d
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Comment #5 posted by J.R. Bob Dobbs on January 22, 2001 at 04:57:21 PT

In the NY Times of all places!!
  Hard vs. Soft drugs is just another term that doesn't really mean much of anything. It's not a scientific distinction, just a relative one, and there's no pre-set space to draw the line. Better ways of classifying a drug would be to list its properties: natural or synthetic, physically addicting or not physically addicting, potential of overdose or not. As far as I can tell, although E is synthetic, it's not physically addicting, and the major potential of overdose is actually drinking too much water. (Can one die from E otherwise, assuming it's pure?)  Another distinction is a little less scientific, but consider the difference between drugs used to escape reality and drugs used to explore it. Heroin is used to shut off and escape from reality, much like large doses of alcohol. Marijuana and the psychedelics are used to explore it. Two totally different ends which are pursued by two totally different classes of people which have unfortunatly been lumped together.  Legalize all physically non-addicting explorational substances!
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Comment #4 posted by dddd on January 22, 2001 at 00:09:16 PT

It be fine my friend....I'm not much of a "chat room",person.I kind of do my chat thing here.I dont know of any decent,intelligent MJ chatrooms,but I'll bet you someone here could recommend one....Are you in So.Cal ?,,,I'm in Orange county. It's interesting that you brought up the question of defining "hard drug".To my mind,a hard drug is mainly one that induces a significant altered state of consciousness,or dramatically alters ones state of mind,or sensory perception........It is an akward term to define because everyone reacts differently.......................d..................d...................d.......................d"drugs is,,as drugs does"...Forrest Hemp?
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Comment #3 posted by Stripey on January 21, 2001 at 22:46:07 PT

How it be, man! Just saw you on here, and figured I'd post.Also, a general statement: are there any decent intelligent MJ chatrooms?
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Comment #2 posted by Stripey on January 21, 2001 at 22:45:04 PT

Wow, FoM, gotta hand it to you. . .
This is a good one. I told myself I'd never do hard drugs, but this one has me thinking. (I consider MDMA a "hard" drug . . . some don't. . .) It seems like this is a very powerful drug if you let it be. There's something about Legba's tale that's extremely sad. This one really got a hold of me and made me listen. I dripped over this thing for nearly a half-hour. It's a pity that people pass anything off as X and get so many kids hurt or dead. I almost don't know what to say.Good article, FoM, kudos for the post.
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Comment #1 posted by dddd on January 21, 2001 at 22:34:07 PT

Drugs are not bad
In fact,,drugs can be very good.This is a good article.I still say the most harm caused by drugs,is caused by getting caught with them................................dddd
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