Close encounters of the everyday kind
A new book asks if microdosing LSD could make you happier and more productive. Why might we need such a helping hand?
This article is a preview from the Spring 2017 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
Ayelet Waldman – wife, mother, writer – does not feel good. She struggles with all sorts of things, from a painful frozen shoulder to mood fluctuations, that she wants to do something about. She lives in California and is highly successful, with an already extremely examined life. She has had all kinds of therapy and all kinds of diagnoses about what is causing her mood swings, her irritability and her rages. She has been variously diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder, premenstrual dysmorphic disorder and post-partum depression. I don’t make light of any of this, but much of what she describes as wrong with her reads like the symptoms of the averagely menopausal woman. She is too angry and too quick to react. She wants to feel better for herself and for her family.
So, as she confesses in her new book A Really Good Day, she decides after some research to start microdosing LSD. As you do. This means not tripping out but taking a very small amount of LSD, 10-20mg (a trip would be 100-150mg), every three days. In pain and desperation she has come across the work of James Fadiman, who developed this microdosing protocol. Fadiman had researched and advocated the use of psychedelics until LSD was banned by the US Government in 1966. Since 2010 his work has become popular again, as he has been studying microdosing through a network of volunteers who report the results.
How did their days go? For a lot of them, clearly much better. There are no hallucinations with these small doses, but they are reporting an increased sense of wellbeing and accounts of good, productive days. This of course could be placebo. This use of LSD, far from being the old route to the divine (Fadiman used to work with Richard Alpert, who changed his name to Ram Dass and pursued a spiritual path), is quite different. It has been taken up by an ubersmart, tech-savvy generation. This is obviously not LSD as “turn on, tune in, drop out”. Rather than seeking an alternative or parallel reality, it is being used to enhance – and I would suggest perform in – existing reality. It is being used for creativity, cognition and problem solving.
Waldman is thus an unusual person to experiment in this way: someone who says she does not like illegal drugs, who has worked as an attorney and has helped formulate drugs policy. But that is not all Waldman is. She is the wife of the novelist Michael Chabon, and has famously written about how she loves her husband more than her children. There is a delight in her about being a “bad mother”, or rattling the cage somewhat, and this LSD experiment veers into the same “look at me, taboo-busting” stance at times. Yet her very openness and sweetness often work against her own narrative. It turns out she has taken drugs before. She and Chabon do MDMA every so often to recharge the batteries of their marriage. If this is too much information, be warned – there is no such concept for Waldman.
She has also taken cartloads of other drugs, but of course they were prescribed: SSRIs like Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac and Zoloft. She has had anti-psychotics as well as Adderall, Xanax, Valium and Activan. At one point she describes her dependence on Ambien and casually mentions that one of her kids is on Adderall for ADHD. So when she confesses her anxiety about taking an illegal drug, it brings home just how medicated so many Americans already are.
So what does microdosing do? LSD is a stimulator that acts on the 5-HT2A serotonin receptors. Anti-depressants also work on those receptors by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin. Psychedelic drugs do something different: they stimulate these receptors and increase the transmission of glutamate. Some scientists describe glutamate as plant food for the brain because it increases growth, connections and activity.
How would this affect mood? Well, Waldman clearly feels calmer, more able to concentrate, even experiencing the much desired state of “flow” – a mental state of total absorption in one’s activity. Importantly, she is able to observe her own moods, at times even see them as a choice. A lot of other research confirms non-official “crowd-sourced” studies like Fadiman’s. Most official research on LSD stopped when LSD became demonised as a drug that caused psychosis, flashbacks, long-term damage and birth defects, an entirely dangerous drug. Advocates like Timothy Leary became outlaws. Waldman is excellent once she steps outside her own privileged reality (should she tell her therapist that she is doing acid?) and takes apart the political baggage that this drug carries.
Her history of the war on drugs and analysis of how the war on drugs functions in America are superb. Indeed the politics of LSD are more compelling than the personal “journey” here. Her chatty style slighty undermines the serious points she is making, but I was glad to know her shoulder had eased up by the end of the book.
Where she is very sharp is on the ways that the culture associated with acid had to be sharply thrust out of the scientific community. Before the mid-’60s the taking of LSD in therapeutic situations was discussed in the mainstream. Cary Grant talked about the benefits of such a practice. Waldman shows how, compared to most drugs, LSD is extremely safe, and challenges much of the mythology around it. Her experience as an attorney and a parent shines through. Here she is at her most lucid, and writes smartly about harm reduction, drug education and how prohibition has so often been used against people of colour in the US. Being reminded of the sheer numbers of those addicted to opiates at the turn of the century, whose addiction was not stigmatised, opens up a discourse around how we even think of “danger”. In these parts of the book Waldman becomes so much more than housewife-superstar, or batty Californian acid tester, and makes a powerful case for both drug research and decriminalisation.
Indeed with psychedelics we are starting to see interesting studies again. At Johns Hopkins and NYU people with end-stage cancer have been given psilocybin in “pleasant enviroments”. The results appear to show that this is helping them confront their fears and ease them into a “good death”. This is all a long way from Aldous Huxley’s famous instructions to his wife to inject him with LSD on his deathbed, or indeed his view that LSD was never really for ordinary people.
In the UK a study at Imperial College London found that psychedelics may help people with depression, by “loosening cognition”. There are similar studies in Switzerland, and some doctors see psychedelics as possible tools to help with everything from anxiety to PTSD to autism.
Unoffically all kinds of psychonauts are using all kinds of old and new drugs, as they always have. The claims are wild and various. Waldman is only using a tiny amount of a drug, and only making a tiny amount of a claim, but her curiosity is touching. What remained incomprehensible to me is why she never goes for the full-blown trip – and if acid so improves her wellbeing, why stop? Her personal revelations – she needs her own writing space and to be here now – remain banal, like hearing about anyone else’s trips/dreams, but her cultural analysis is powerful.
Eventually though, the premise that microdosing can be used to make someone a better wife and mother did blow my tiny mind. Who would have known that you need to take acid to ultimately drop in, rather than out?
“A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My Life” is published by Corsair