X'ed out

You're in a love puddle. You're smiling. You're high on Ecstasy. You touch your friend's hair. Wow. You can't stop touching it. Her hair is incredibly soft. You keep smiling. Now it's a few years later. You take E again. You grind your teeth, the hangover lasts a week. It's no fun. What happened?

Published July 30, 2003 9:35PM (EDT)

It was the best X of my life.

It's 1988, I'm 18 years old, a sophomore in college in Philadelphia, and I've just got my hands on two hits of something called Ecstasy. I got it from a friend, who got it from his friend, who got it from his girlfriend. She worked in a psych lab and had grabbed a bunch of government-issued, vitamin-C-coated, grade-A MDMA. Or so we were told.

I had first heard about Ecstasy a few years earlier in high school, back when it was still legal, back before the government classified it as a Schedule 1 narcotic, a class of drugs with maximum potential for abuse and no sanctioned medical use. I remember reading about young professionals in Philadelphia gushing about this new drug. Happiness in a pill. This was before there was much talk about Prozac. Or scary studies about MDMA-munching monkeys developing Parkinson's.

I have always had an affection for altered states. My mom tells a story of how I used to love trips to the dentist as a 6-year-old because the dentist let me go on an airplane ride (helloooooo.... nitrous!). In high school there was no greater joy than parking with my pals at what we called Rasta Road, smoking bowls, and playing Gene Loves Jezebel over and over and over. When a plate of mushrooms walked by in college, I waved it on over. Ecstasy was inevitable.

I spent that first night on E tripping with a girl I'd met when I was a teenager, adored at first sight, and a few years later began dating. That night, I took the train from Philadelphia to New York City and nervously handed her a tablet of MDMA. Over the course of the next 12 hours we had a psychological and sexual bond like none I'd known before. We were alive together in a singular and extended moment, at once engaged in our inner minds and outer selves. It was a dreamy swirl of conversation, sex, Diet Coke, and Rolling Rock. We felt what Ann Shulgin, a therapist and the wife of one of the drug's early researchers, Alexander Shulgin, calls MDMA's ability to offer "insight without fear." I later read that Ecstasy belongs to a family of drugs called "entactogens," which literally means "touching within." That's what we were doing. It was amazing.

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Around this same time, all over the globe, strangers who would later become soul mates of one stripe or another embarked on their own E experiments.

Earlier that year, Vicki, a friend of mine from the school paper, took a hit of E with her boyfriend. They watched "Pink Floyd -- The Wall" all night. She had never seen or felt anything as fantastic in her entire 19 years of pleasure seeking. She later described it as "like having a six-hour orgasm." The next morning she awoke feeling refreshed and glowing -- and transformed. She had found God in a pill.

Meanwhile, Pippi, a brassy Southern girl studying English lit at Dartmouth, first popped a pill with "two chicks and a dude." She took the drug in the library, downing it with water from a little plastic cup in the bathroom. They walked around campus and waited for the sun to set. Then they made their way to someone's room, a room filled with candles, weed and good music. They sat up all night and talked. She loved E. She loved how it made her mind feel. She loved what it did to her body. She loved the $20 flat fee for entry, open to any and all. She loved that the feeling of E lived up to the expectation that was building around it at that time. But what she loved best was the "immediate, sincere feeling of being connected with the other people -- the raw emotions we shared without hesitation." She had visuals too. She saw the page of a novel, black words on white background. Suddenly, the commas all fell to the bottom of the page, collecting in a circle. She later turned that image into a painting, a painting that sits in her parents' home to this day. "And boy," Pippi says, "do they have no clue."

Across the pond at Oxford, Jordan (whose name has been changed), a teenager prone to depression and isolation, was at a club called Spectrum when he was first introduced to Ecstasy. Jordan remembers feeling the walls of his personality just crumble. "At first the experience was terrifying," he recalls, "a complete loss of control, like a descent into madness." But as he came down from the drug's peak and adjusted to the new state of mind, intense feelings of love, euphoria and compassion overwhelmed him. For several days afterward he felt like a sort of religious convert: While taking the drug he'd seen a completely different, utopian mode of being. At the time, this seemed and felt absolutely real.

This extended tribe of fellow MDMA monkeys would spend parts of the '80s, '90s, and 2000s playing with this drug, and each other, wondering what was real and what was imagined, true utopia or a land of make-believe. We weren't the first people to experiment with E, and we won't be the last. But as part of the first significant group of people to become recreational Ecstasy users -- a generation defined (for better or worse) as Generation X -- we've played a part in taking MDMA from its adolescence into adulthood. We've grown up with this drug, and it with us.

Writing in Rolling Stone in 1982, Marcelle Clements related her realization that marijuana was no longer fun for her and her fellow '60s smokers. What happened, she asked in a famous essay called "The Dog Is Us," to lead the people who glamorized a drug to decide to abandon it? A dog walking into a room full of pot smokers used to be the most hilarious thing in the world, she observed. Years later -- due to increased age, changing values, but mainly "ego-chewing paranoia" -- it was no fun at all. What happened? "'Why did you stop smoking' I asked people my own age, those I personally started smoking with in the mid-to-late Sixties," Clements wrote then. "Persons in this group, perhaps in part because they've been so often examined by the media (under the hideously titled category 'The Baby Boom Generation'), tend to be both articulate and self-conscious: they provide an unusually loquacious sample for this sort of inquiry."

A touch more than 20 years later, I look around at my circle of friends and realize that the drug has changed but the question hasn't. Through expert opinions, empirical data, and many conversations with the people I started taking E with, I looked for that answer.

This is our story.

What was in the amazing drug? I can't even remember the first time I bothered to ask. The rumor in the late '80s and early '90s that E drained spinal fluid caught my attention. But my main thought as a 21-year-old who had done the drug about three times was: It's worth it, whatever the cost to my body. (The truth was that some Ecstasy research in the '80s involved withdrawing fluid samples from users via a spinal tap, and thus an urban legend was born. A spinal tap is the only way to lose spinal fluid.)

As it turns out, Ecstasy was created by accident. In 1912 the German pharmaceutical company Merck was searching for a new anticoagulant and synthesized 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, as a part of that process of discovery. But the compound was never tested on people, and it lay dormant in the obscure pages of scientific journals. While there were reports of recreational use in the '60s (as well as military experiments testing MDMA's potential as a truth serum), the drug's breakthrough moment didn't come until the mid-'70s. In 1976 Dr. Alexander Shulgin, a senior research chemist at Dow Chemical Co. who had -- since the instant he received a shot of morphine while in the Navy -- been intensely curious about the effects of drugs on consciousness, resynthesized MDMA and then tried some on himself. Shulgin was amazed at the result. He found that MDMA produced an enchanting, mellow high, marked by a rich sense of emotional openness. He went on to become an outspoken advocate of the drug's therapeutic potential, coauthoring the first human studies in 1978 and suggesting that MDMA could help therapists unlock repressed emotions. The compound that started as an accidental byproduct was rediscovered as an "insight tool."

In the '70s and early '80s, a small circle of psychologists and psychiatrists, following Shulgin's lead, experimented with MDMA. They nicknamed it Empathy and conducted therapy sessions with patients under the influence. Apparently, the drug -- which causes your brain to release massive amounts of serotonin -- allowed these doctors to dig deeper into their patients' psyches, with less pain (described in detail in "The Secret Chief"). "To paraphrase the pioneering MDMA psychiatrist George Greer, psychiatrists felt as if they had gone from working in charcoal to oil paints," says Dr. Julie Holland, an attending psychiatrist at the Bellevue Hospital Psychiatric Emergency Room, an expert on street drugs, and the editor of "Ecstasy -- The Complete Guide: A Comprehensive Look at the Risks and Benefits of MDMA." "What's so infuriating is that when you make a drug illegal, it goes underground, the quality goes down, yet of course people will want it more."

Indeed, at the same time, MDMA attracted the attention of club promoters, who used it for their own commercial purposes. They called it Ecstasy and positioned it as a party drug. On July 1, 1985, in an effort led by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, who had heard that Ecstasy was being sold in Texas bars and via 800 numbers, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) ordered an emergency scheduling of MDMA, placing it into Schedule 1, reserved for the most restricted class of drugs, such as heroin.

The lines were drawn. "In essence the government said, since people are sniffing paints, therapists couldn't use the paint," Holland says. "The whole point of psychiatry is for the patient to explain what is going on in the mind. But because people were abusing this drug, a huge branch of medicine has been denied a powerful tool."

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Over in Europe, house music was taking off and Ecstasy use went with it. Inspired by the scene on the Spanish party island of Ibiza, the London-style warehouse rave scene was exploding and coming to America. "The drug was breaking down barriers in England's still rigidly class-stratified society," says Jordan, who grew up in southern England and moved to San Francisco just before the millennium. "And it was peaceful: no fights and broken bottles. Just dancing. And this exhilarating new music: house. Meanwhile, we'd just come out of the Cold War: Armageddon hadn't happened and for the first time in a decade we were free from fear of annihilation. So with the combination of the drug, the music, and the social and political changes, there was this incredible sense of something happening."

"Every modern music scene has been associated with drugs," says Douglas Rushkoff, a longtime chronicler of rave culture. "Big band had booze, rock 'n' roll had pot, psychedelic music had acid, disco's drug was cocaine. Raves first emerged out of a growing discontent with commercial club culture. Discos were dominated by the culture of alcohol and cocaine. Raves said: We can play with each other without intermediaries. We don't need to pay the mob-run disco and get past the bouncer to have fun."

I love talking with Rushkoff. The author of the novel "Ecstasy Club" and an expert on media, the Internet, and rave and other cultures, Rushkoff unfurls Talmudic takes on these topics, topics that my friends and I have ourselves yammered on about late into many an evening.

"If I were to guess the drug trajectory of you and your friends," he says between bites of a burger in a cafe in New York City's East Village, "I'd say it was marijuana, acid, mushrooms, Ecstasy, coke, and/or speed."

Pretty close. Yet this wasn't the trajectory on which my largely middle- and upper-middle-class friends and I envisioned ourselves. Our organizing drug principles were more organic. Pot and 'shrooms were natural. Even acid, though made in a lab, seemed to be more about the mind than the body. We didn't do nasty, "dangerous" drugs like coke or meth or heroin. That shit was evil. Deadly, even. But E was different.

Among its many other wondrous qualities, it wasn't addictive, at least not among the group who coalesced around this drug in and around San Francisco and at our "come one, come all to the desert" festival, Burning Man. We were a group of creative, smart individuals -- work hard, play hard, was what we did, in every sense of that overplayed expression. Our recreational drug habits were impressive, sure, but we also had our lives together.

"E built a tight connection to a community where we could trust or depend on one another," says Victor (not his real name), 34, a rocket scientist living in San Francisco. "We'd be in these love puddles, lying around with friends and making connections we'd otherwise not make. We could kiss one another, we could be physically intense without sexual predatorship or false expectations. It was fun and frivolous, but it really meant something. You were in a space where you could think no wrong and do no wrong and you could carry that head space with you to other situations when you were sober."

"Until this time, I was always an outsider," says Wren, 37, who grew up in California's San Joaquin Valley -- ranch country -- "a culture where you just didn't touch each other." She now lives in Missoula, Mont., where she's a large-animal veterinary assistant. "E cemented the group thing. You went to a party and you kind of knew each other and then you took this drug and there was that shimmer -- like a light above a lake. An incredible warm rush. Suddenly we were One."

So for a few years, a group of people who had first tried MDMA in other places --- in college on the East Coast, in high school on the West Coast, or as self-loathing youth in London -- came together. Extended friends as extended family. We were trying, in the words of Rushkoff, "to take an evolutionary leap, to add more people to our posse than we had in old caveman clans." E was the social lubricant for our new networked reality.

The E was kicking in.

Boys kissed girls, girls kissed girls, and boys who had just a few years earlier thought it would be really weird to kiss another boy found out that it wasn't. We did E with best friends and bosses, in bars and backyard barbecues, on hikes and in hot springs, with people we were sleeping with and people we weren't. We did E at bars, on beaches, at weddings, in Santa Claus costumes. All for E and E for all! We were shimmering, we were shammering, we were zigging, we were zagging. We were a collective Dionysian fantasy fueled by a little pill discovered by accident. We did E with elaborate planning, and on the spur of the moment.

We even did E by accident.

Once, after a particularly raucous weekend of partying that was to end in a quiet Sunday night with a couple of 5-HTP pills -- a popular pre- and post-E supplement -- William (not his real name), the 33-year-old owner of a Web services company in San Francisco, accidentally gave himself and his girlfriend Suzanne (not hers either) another hit of E instead of this serotonin booster. While that made William the butt of jokes for years, even then there were few regrets. "For the record, I have always found it great that William dosed us," says Suzanne three years later. A 28-year-old editor at an online music site, she was recently engaged to William. "One, our friends learned the mantra 'Mark your pills, people.' And it was especially hilarious at the time, once I convinced William to enjoy it. We spent that night talking, and it was the first time he said he thought we'd spend the rest of our lives together."

We had good jobs, good friends, and an enviable lifestyle. We smiled and the world smiled back.

It's probably 1998, though I'm not entirely sure, and I'm at Burning Man. When my friends and I first started going to this desert festival (an event that, despite articles like this, is not mainly about taking drugs), we might have taken Ecstasy once or twice over the course of four or five days. Now, we're popping E once or twice a night, almost every night, over the course of a week or more. Chemically, it makes no sense to do this -- once you've shot your serotonin wad, it just can't return to levels at which MDMA can affect it. (This is why people like Alexander Shulgin don't do the drug very often, nor advise others to.) More serotonin in your system means more happy and relaxed feelings, so you sort of want to keep serotonin around. But I don't know this yet. And if my friends do, it's not a hot topic of discussion.

My third day in a row taking E: It's still daylight when I take a pill and at first it feels pretty good. It's somewhat speedy, which is not ideal but also not surprising, given how the quality has been slowly but surely deteriorating over the past few years -- leading to a slippery slope of delusion. ("Maybe this time it will be good. Maybe if I just take two hits it'll work like it used to.") My girlfriend couldn't come this year, and at first the pill is kind of fun, liberating even -- "Look, Ma, no girlfriend!" Then I start to miss her. A lot. I feel lonely and sad and scared. And then sick. I puke all over the dusty desert floor. Others have taken this same batch and are fine. But my body didn't want MDMA, or whatever else might lie in this little powdered pill someone got from somewhere and at some point gave to me. Collecting my disgusting self, I drink some water and join some friends who are enjoying another perfect sunset. Nigel, a graphic designer I met during my first "real" job and the person who introduced me to the desert a couple of years before, notices that something's wrong. He puts his gentle British arm around me and asks me if I'm all right. I say I'm fine. He brings over a few more friends and tells them that he thinks I am missing my girlfriend and so they need to keep me company.

That wasn't the worst trip I've had, not even close. The worst experience on E was the night six of us decided to take it together, including one E virgin. We all took a pill that I had personally procured, and after 45 minutes it kicked in. But the virgin didn't really feel it. We decided to take another half each. A few minutes later, the first-timer had a seizure. He flopped on the ground surrounded by his terrified, panicking wife and a bunch of tripping, totally freaked-out friends trying to figure out what the fuck to do. A few minutes later, he came to, explaining that he had a history of seizures. That night it became painfully clear to me that a guy handing out drugs ought to be more acutely aware of its possible side effects. Days later, two clicks of the mouse taught me that people with a history of seizures aren't ideal candidates for E. Had he died, everything would be different. Among other life changes, there's certainly no way I'd ever take E again, and I would probably be traveling around the country telling high school kids about the dangers of drugs. But he didn't die. He soon felt better and stayed up most of the night happily talking. He'd done his last pill, sure. But the rest of us hadn't.

Few of the trips since then weren't what I'd call bad; they just weren't all that good. We were doing it too much, feeling it too little.

"When you do it twice a month it starts to get boring," says Pippi, now 35 and a marketing executive at a software company in Silicon Valley. "You get into an E rut, the same E friends doing the same E thing. You feel like hell. Why I am taking this and where is this taking me? That's the depressing side. I think it comes with age, too. You need to go to higher highs as with any drug to be happy with the high."

With each trip, the downside seemed to be getting more down.

"It stopped being all sexy and friendly," says Robert, a 31-year-old carpenter whom you could count on to do anything and everything, usually all at once. "It started being a hassle, an ampy, nasty feeling that had become more of a ritual than a choice. And by the way, I don't really like to dance. It's like, how come when I'm sober you can't get me on a dance floor, but when I'm all hopped up on the goof, I'm out there flopping around like Rerun from 'What's Happening?' That doesn't make sense at all, but I was trying to force it to work, force it to be fun again."

For Nigel, 39, it worked reliably for a number of years. Then it stopped working. "Not abruptly," he explains, "but over a period of a couple of years. I'm not sure if I've done too much, or if the X is too speedy, but often I feel depressed two days afterwards. More than that, while I still have a good -- though not great or mind-blowing -- time, I'm conscious of the fact that I can see through the artifice of the drug. While before I could easily suspend disbelief, nowadays I'm aware -- naggingly conscious -- of the fact that I'm being tricked into thinking I'm happy. My brain tells me: You're happy now. But that's 'cause you're on drugs. Just wait till tomorrow."

I had to ask, like Carrie Bradshaw tapping out another obvious yet irresistible column: Was the X getting worse, or were we getting too old for it?

Coming Thursday: Monkey gone to heaven: One primate expired during a landmark Johns Hopkins medical study. How are the four other monkeys -- and less furry Ecstasy users -- doing?

By Larry Smith

Larry Smith has written about his and other people's lives for ESPN magazine, the New York Times, Teen People, and other publications.

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