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E for Ecstasy
by Nicholas Saunders

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Chapter 2: My own experience with E The seventies and early eighties was a period when I was energetic and productive, enthusiastically involving myself in one successful project after another, first a guidebook called Alternative London and then a series of 'alternative' businesses which I had started in Neal's Yard, a courtyard in central London. Yet by 1988 I felt disappointed because most of the original ideas I had pioneered had been discarded. That year I did start a new business, but more out of desperation to prove myself than enthusiasm, and it was not a success.

I was in that strained frame of mind when a friend called Claudia offered to take me on an Ecstasy trip. She is an extrovert actress who I've known for years and, as rather an introvert myself, I wanted to keep my distance to avoid being overpowered by her. We swallowed the capsules in her flat and then headed off for Kew Gardens, a place I loved and where I thought I would feel safe. On the way to the station I felt symptoms familiar from taking LSD in the sixties - I would see something happening out of the corner of my eye but it would return to normal when I turned my head. As we got on the train Claudia took my hand. . . What a surprise! It felt wonderful to be touched, and there was nothing threatening about her, she was clearly warm and caring. Even the worn train seat felt good, and I rubbed the back of my head on it like a cow does on a gate. I felt Claudia's delight at seeing me opening up and asked: "I could really get into this, would you stop me if I go too far?" Claudia laughed and told me to enjoy myself while she looked after me. I got into catlike stretching and slid under the table to enjoy the space, laughing at how shy old me could behave like that. When I sat up I found that I could 'ride' the train like a horse, responding to its bumpy movement. I looked out of the window and saw everything afresh; not only beauty but ugliness was accentuated, too.

When we got off the train I took deep breaths and the air felt wonderful. It was good to be alive. But the intellectual part of myself asked "What is different to normal? Why isn't life always like this?" I deduced that I was simply allowing myself to enjoy what had always been there. I realised that I had got into the habit of restraining myself. It was not this drug-induced state that was distorted - it was what I had come to accept as my normal state that was perverse. I then realised that over the past few years I had been mildly depressed. And, what's more, I could see why: some years before I had felt cheated in a business deal, and had carried a resentment like a burden ever since: instead of hurting the person involved, I had been grimly taking it out on myself. This realisation and the experience of a few hours 'freedom' was just the tonic I needed; I let go of the resentment and started afresh with new enthusiasm.

Since then I have taken the drug three or four times a year. Only twice has the experience been less than delightful, but on both occasions it nevertheless provided insights. Once was when I took Ecstasy in a flat in Holland with Anne and Afga, two woman friends who I had known since the sixties, I became acutely aware of how the years had changed them. I could see that Afga had suffered a great deal as a result of the men she had been involved with, yet it seemed to me that the pain had matured her into a strong and serene woman. I felt that Anne, by contrast, hadn't allowed life to hurt her and was still playing the 'flower child' which simply didn't fit the middle-aged woman she had become. As the trip proceeded, I found it difficult to communicate with them. Afga became absorbed in her own thoughts and ignored me, while I restrained myself from telling Anne how I saw her. As a result I got a headache. The other occasion was with a tense friend who suffered from crippling stomach cramps. When the drug took effect her face opened up and she felt truly relaxed for the first time in years, allowing her to slither around the floor like a snake - until it wore off and her cramps returned with a vengeance. Altogether it was a painful experience, but it did provide her with a valuable insight into the cause of her cramps: the memory of being raped as an adolescent.

On one occasion I was on a walking holiday in the Himalayas. I was trekking in Nepal with a Danish couple who I had met on the trail. Our trek took us over a 17,000 foot high pass, an extreme effort and achievement for all of us, and next day we took some E as we sat in the cold sunshine overlooking Tibet with a glacier ice-fall behind us and the peak of Annapurna gleaming across a wide valley. As we watched, clouds formed on the peak, then they drifted across the valley changing shape into fishes, dragons and horses. At one point an eagle swooped down over our heads, and we felt as though we were carried with it across the valley below. Afterwards the reserved French geologists at our hotel responded to our warm mood by bringing out brandy and chocolates which they had reserved for a special occasion. There were no insights, it was simply a wonderful day where the surrounding magnificence was enhanced, but the shared experience formed a bond between us and we travelled on together like old friends.

Another time was spent in the countryside with a lover whose Sufi master warned that drugs damage the psyche and would undo hard-earned spiritual achievements. As the drug came on her face lit up and she cried, "What fools they are." Spirituality was right there for her, and she still regards that event as a valid mystical experience. We found ourselves utterly fascinated by a moorhen that was building its nest, as though the bird had acknowledged our presence and was letting us observe its skills.

After all these experiences on E, I had still not been to a rave. It was not that I didn't want to, but simply that, as a middle-aged man, I thought I would feel conspicuously out of place. Then the opportunity came: a rave where several of my friends would be, one actually older than myself. I quite enjoyed myself thanks to the E putting me in a positive mood, but I could not get into it. The dancers appeared to be lost in their individual trips, facing the speakers without relating to one another. I was simply amazed by the discomfort of the venue, with its rough concrete floor and steel walls wet with condensed sweat; the unrelenting, aggressive music and pulsing lights to match. It was not until I had spent several more similar nights out that I was able to enjoy the true experience.

I was given a phone number by a friend to ring for tickets and was directed to a dilapidated block with a sign saying 'Offices to Let for #50 a week. Move in today.' It looked bare as though they had done just that. A girl sold me the tickets and when I asked where the party was to be held she scrawled the address on a scrap of paper. Half expecting I'd been conned, I turned up at midnight just as the E I'd taken was coming on.

The venue was spacious and well-ventilated. The music was the usual Techno House, although not as harsh as some, and I tried to follow a friend's advice of moving with the bass and ignoring the rest. I got into dancing in my usual rather self-conscious way, keeping an eye on what other people were doing and well aware that I was much older than everybody else. Then, imperceptibly, I gradually relaxed, melted into it, and knew I was part of it all. There was no need to be self conscious; I had no doubt I was accepted; there was nothing I might do that would jar because everyone else was simply being themselves, as though they were celebrating their freedom from the constraints and neuroses of society. Although everyone was separately celebrating in their own space, when I looked around I would easily make eye contact - no-one was hiding behind a mask. There was virtually no conversation or body contact except for the occasional short hug, but I experienced a feeling of belonging to the group, a kind of uplifting religious experience of unity that I have felt only once before, when I was part of a community (Christiania) that was threatened with closure. It was as though we belonged to an exclusive tribe bonded by some shared understanding, yet full 'membership' was mine for the #10 ticket and #15 tablet. Not everyone was included; a few looked awkward, trying to fit in or dancing with style but without spontaneity. I assumed that they had not taken Ecstasy.

That experience was a revelation. I felt as though I completely understood what raves are all about - including the music, which had always grated on me. Harmony that I had found lacking was irrelevant: the music constantly provided energy to lift one up without ever letting one down; it built up more and more without ever reaching a climax. I found myself not only dancing to the heavy beat, but breathing to it too, sometimes letting out sounds along with the music. There was subtlety hidden in the change of beat, a kind of tease that made me smile each time. And it felt so very healthy, as though I was moving in a way that was a true expression of myself, with every part of the body feeling free and flexible. I felt much younger, almost reborn.

I danced continuously until 6 am without any effort, even though I would normally be exhausted after an hour of such vigorous exercise. As the E wore off, at about 4 am, I started to feel some tension in my stomach, but the trance remained until the end. On the way home in a car with friends the music carried on so clearly that we had to check that the stereo was off before believing the sound was coming from inside our own heads! I slept most of the next day and also right through the following night, without any further effects apart from stiffness in the legs.

Problem solving In 1992 I became interested in exploring Ecstasy's potential for solving personal problems, and took MDMA with an old friend, Jill, with the specific intention of resolving problems and examining relationships in our lives. We each wrote down a list of subjects that we wanted to explore beforehand, and spent the first hour after the drug came on concentrating on one issue at a time.

I had snapped at an ex-neighbour a few days before. I was a bit shocked at myself as I couldn't see why I had done it. But on Ecstasy it seemed clear: I felt threatened by the people who had moved into his flat and he had 'caused' this problem by having moved out! Next I focused my attention on one particular friend who I had always admired for what he had achieved in the face of enormous difficulties. My image of him was shattered and instead I saw him as a Chinese juggler spinning plates on bamboo sticks, desperately rushing from one to the other to forestall a catastrophe. It didn't seem like a revelation, more as though I had known it all the time, and only afterwards did I realise that this was a viewpoint that I had not seen before.

On later reflection, I assessed these insights on MDMA as valid but not the complete picture. It was as though MDMA had provided me with a different viewpoint, such as might be seen by a friend. There was one occasion when the drug had virtually no effect on me, and that was when I was in love. It was later that I realised the significance: being on E is quite similar. (132)