Some time ago, I embarked on an experiment microdosing with LSD. Though I am not a neophyte when it comes to drugs, I am not your typical psychonaut. The morning I deposited 10 micrograms of liquid LSD under my tongue was the first time I had ever tried the drug. The inside of my head has always been a place that scares me. Getting too close a look at what’s going on in there is the last thing I ever wanted.
I didn’t take the LSD because I was after spiritual transcendence. Nor was I interested in performance enhancement. I took the LSD and continued to take it for the next 30 days because I was trying to not kill myself.
I suffer from a mood disorder that has been variously diagnosed as bipolar II, cyclothymia, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and just general bitchiness. (To be fair, the latter was an insult, not a diagnosis, though it may be the most accurate assessment of all.) At the time when I began my microdosing experiment, my medications had failed me. The reasons are complicated and described at length in the book I wrote about my microdosing experiment, A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life, but suffice it to say that everything goes to hell when you hit middle age, even (or maybe especially) your moods.
The experiment was — spoiler alert — a resounding success. I didn’t spend the month in a euphoric, blissed-out, zoned-out haze. I was, rather, a little less labile, a little less inclined to anger, and more important, a lot less anhedonic. I stopped Googling “how many Tylenol does it take to kill a person?” My children were the ones who noticed the change most strikingly. One of them said, “You’ve been much happier. You’ve been controlling your emotions. Like, when you’re angry, you’re super chill.”
I was also a lot more productive. Many of the people carrying out personal, secret microdosing experiments are doing so not because they are depressed, but because they feel the practice makes them more creative, more adept at problem solving, and generally more productive at work.
A Really Good Day, the first draft of which I wrote during that month of microdosing, is in some ways the book that LSD wrote. Research at Imperial College London has shown that LSD allows discrete and unrelated regions of the brain to communicate with one another in unusual ways. The book contains many discrete and, at least on cursory glance, unrelated topics. It is about my experiment and what I experienced, but it’s also about the neurochemistry of psychedelic drugs, the history and effects both legal and social of the war on drugs, my family’s history of mental illness, and my marriage.
I don’t think I would have attempted such a complicated, multifaceted work had I not been microdosing with LSD.
Though I was eager to share the results of the experiment with others who suffer from depression or other mood issues, my previous book, Love and Treasure, was a novel set against the backdrop of the Holocaust in Hungary. In support of that novel, I traveled around the country from Jewish community center to synagogue to Jewish book club. The average age of my audience hovered around 70. What would these people make of a drug memoir, I wondered?
It turns out I needn’t have worried. The first time I stood up in front of an audience, looked out over the crowd, and saw some of the same gray heads I had seen when touring for the prior book, I felt vaguely nauseated. But then I asked those who had experience with psychedelic drugs to raise their hands.
At that event and the ones that followed, plenty of senior citizens — among them librarians, property developers, teachers, doctors — proudly and happily recounted their acid trips. It was both charming and disconcerting to hear someone my father’s age telling me how they’d tripped their balls off on the beach in 1968. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, I suppose. Research shows that something like 20 million Americans have used LSD, many of those back in its 1960s heyday. Still, it was fascinating to hear how their experiences with psychedelics shaped and transformed their lives in ways they continue to appreciate all these decades later.
Ironically, I am far less comfortable than many of the members of my audiences with the illegal activity at the heart of my book. Early in my career, before I began writing, I was a public defender working in the federal courts, representing many drug defendants. There are few people as paranoid about overenforcement and the long arm of the law than public defenders. However, there is a reason people like me can feel relatively safe discussing illegal activity. The experiment and my choice to write about it is an experience born of privilege. Discriminatory enforcement is one of the defining features of our criminal justice system. As a white woman of means, my privilege has allowed me to feel less at risk than others might.
Even so, I’m not sure I would have published this book had I known that Jeff Sessions was going to be the attorney general of the United States. Before President Donald Trump’s election and Sessions’ appointment, the country had been moving slowly and creakily toward a more sane drug policy. Twenty-nine states now allow the possession and sale of marijuana for medical use, and nine permit the possession and sale of marijuana for recreational use. As the revenue implications of legalization become apparent, more states are likely to follow. A legalization bill is now pending in the U.S. Senate. And yet the chief law enforcement officer of the country is the most retrograde, reactionary, and aggressive drug war warrior in recent history. I don’t think anyone can feel entirely safe in this climate.
In addition to cheerful acid freaks turned upstanding citizens, my audiences invariably included a group that was far less forthcoming. At nearly every event, someone would come up to me and, after glancing around to make sure we were not overheard, quietly and shamefully confess to being depressed or even suicidal. It was such a stark contrast to the many people who trumpeted with pride and pleasure their illegal psychedelic histories. The individuals with mental health issues had committed no crime, and yet it was they who were deeply embarrassed.
I understand this shame. I have to overcome it every time I speak publicly or write about my mental health issues. What does it say about the continuing stigma of mental illness that so many of us feel comfortable discussing our illegal drug use, but depression is a secret too embarrassing to share?
In the period of time since my microdosing experiment, I have not fallen again into those perilous depths of depression. Nor have I, however, maintained the same equilibrium as when I was using the drug. It is impossible without controlled, ideally double-blind studies to know for sure whether my experience was a result of the drug or merely a delightful placebo effect, but I believe that if I were able to continue using LSD in microdoses, I would be more stable, less inclined to depression, and more content.
Even more important, I believe my family would be better off.
Despite my trepidations about the priorities of the Department of Justice, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of psychedelic therapy, and of microdosing in particular. In years past, the U.S. government successfully imposed its drug policy on the world using the tools of treaty and both hard and soft power. With Trump in power, it’s possible that countries will be less concerned about the perils of alienating the United States and will experiment with evidence-based decriminalization and legalization. Countries including Portugal and Uruguay have already begun to do so.
A trial of microdosing is currently getting underway in England. Though that trial is focused on creativity, I have hopes that studies focusing on the therapeutic value of small doses of psychedelic drugs will follow.
When they do, I will be first in line to volunteer as a subject.