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E for Ecstasy
by Nicholas Saunders

[ Chapter 3 ] [ Index ] [ Chapter 5 ]

Chapter 4: What E does and how it works What Ecstasy does is very simple, yet difficult to describe. It combines two opposite effects, stimulation and relaxation, but in addition provides a subtle quality of empathy.(141) The radical psychotherapist RD Laing, who took MDMA at Esalen, California, in 1984 when it was still legal, said, "It made me feel how all of us would like to feel we are anyway . . . smooth and open hearted, not soggy, sentimental or stupid".(25, 3) Another psychologist described it as providing a "brief, fleeting moment of sanity".(110) The most similar experience familiar to most people is being in love.(132)

The most predictable feelings experienced are empathy, openness, peace and caring.(166) However, what people experience can vary from paranoia(140) to sleep(138), depending greatly on other factors called 'set and setting'(166) which includes their cultural beliefs, expectations and state of mind at the time.(153, 166) Even your genetic make up may affect your experience.(178)

Psychiatric effects See Psychological Dangers of Ecstasy on my site in North America and in Europe.

In 1992 researchers in the US attempted to identify the effects of MDMA in psychological terms through studying its effects on psychiatrists.(26) The psychiatrists' experiences varied, but apart from losing track of time, the most commonly noted effects were that they related to other people more openly with less fear or defensiveness. Half said the drug had a lasting positive effect on their 'social/interpersonal functioning', and nearly half mentioned changes in their spiritual outlook and values.(46)

The effects are similar, though more intense, to the popular antidepressant Prozac (Fluoxetine): it makes most people feel liberated and good about themselves, less self-conscious and able to feel emotions more clearly,(148) while a small minority become more depressed. A university lecturer who was oversensitive to Prozac described how, as member of an examination review board, she felt euphoric and unable to take the subject seriously, an experience that sounds similar to MDMA. Both drugs lower serotonin levels, though by different means.(30, 67)

I believe that the drug's various effects can be reduced to two primary effects, one physical and one mental: the relief of muscular tension and the dissolution of fear. People on Ecstasy feel able to move and to express themselves freely, so the drug provides a taste of living without the restraints we have become to regard as part of life. Users often compare the effect to memories of early childhood when they would look people in the eye, live for the moment and were free of inhibitions.

The ideas of Wilhelm Reich, a radical student of Freud who developed his own theories, may be relevant. Reich developed the theory that children in times of trauma brace themselves against pain by tensing their muscles, a reaction which becomes habitual, and which develops into what he called 'body armour'. As adults, people prevent themselves from being hurt through 'being cool': avoiding expression of emotions or revealing weaknesses. Reich believed that muscular tensions go hand in hand with emotional tensions or neuroses, and the test for being free of the latter is the ability to move in an 'orgasmic' way with spontaneous undulations flowing smoothly from head to toe, a form of movement that often occurs spontaneously on MDMA. It could be that the drug temporarily removes both neuroses and the associated body armour.

Ecstasy is unlike most other drugs in that it increases awareness of touch and sound, an effect that has been observed in laboratory rats.(185) The drug has also been described as allowing the life force, or Chi, to flow freely.(29) Traumatic memories, suppressed for years because they are too painful to face, may emerge and be looked at without terror. Insights into what is really happening in life can also occur. Pain may be reduced(30, 31, 4), especially if it is based on fear, such as the fear of death.

Spiritual effects For articles on religious uses of Ecstasy and the Rave as a religious service, see my site online in both North America and Europe

It is also claimed that MDMA has some spiritual effects. Recently Alexander Shulgin told the story of a Japanese poet who tried MDMA and said: "It has taken twenty years of studying Zen for me to reach this clarity, but I'm glad I did it my way". A Benedictine monk at a monastery in Big Sur, California, tried to see if MDMA could aid meditation, and concluded that the drug 'facilitated the search by providing a glimpse of the goal', but that it did not replace the hard work required.(5) A healer claimed that she saw a client's aura brightened by MDMA(27), and there are many reports of people becoming more spiritually aware.(28, 26)

The Lion Path(136, 149) is a road to enlightenment using MDMA as a tool. It is based on the idea that throughout history there have been certain 'open' periods related to astrology when there has been the opportunity for spiritual growth. Such an opening exists now until 1988, and the most 'open' days for each individual are determined according to their own astrological chart. On these particular days spread over 5 years, followers meditated in isolation on MDMA. Officially, MDMA is no longer recommended although it is still used by some followers.

Many spiritual practices "may be greatly facilitated and the effects amplified including meditation, yoga, tai chi, guided imagery, psychosynthesis, shamanic journey work and rebirthing. This is best done on low doses or towards the end of a session.(166)

The effects of MDMA vary greatly according to the intention of the user and external stimulation during the trip. In my experience, minimum stimulation (such as isolation with ear plugs) in secure surroundings produces the most inward-looking experience, while the direction, such as whether emotional or spiritual, depends on one's intention.

Telepathy Many people feel telepathic on E, or as one reader remarked, "Where does empathy end and telepathy begin?" But although there are some anecdotes(142), there were no responses when I asked readers to test their telepathic abilities with friends in another room.

Effects at raves When MDMA is experienced at raves, it lacks some of the subtle effects experienced in quiet surroundings, but has an extra quality not seen when the drug is taken in private.(32) The combination of the drug with music and dancing together produces an exhilarating trancelike state, perhaps similar to that experienced in tribal rituals or religious ceremonies.(33)

Ecstasy is often called the 'love drug', a name which suggests another way of looking at its effects. MDMA opens the heart and allows love to flow. This may extend to loving oneself, overcoming awkwardness and allowing oneself to feel good.

Unpleasant effects MDMA does not suit everyone. The most extreme example I have come across was a few years ago, when a man I knew who suffered from severe stomach cramps attempted to use the drug for self-therapy. During the trip he experienced a wonderful release, allowing him to move freely and flowingly. However, as the effects wore off the cramps returned with a vengeance. It was a frightening experience; the following night he vomited until he was exhausted and has never wanted to take the drug again.

Even people who normally enjoy Ecstasy can have very different experiences including hallucinations, though these are usually due to another drug (such as LSD) sold as Ecstasy.(appendix 2) But even with pure MDMA paranoia is sometimes experienced.(140)

Less extreme reactions are more common. A woman friend who took E at a party reported that Ecstasy made her feel unpleasantly out of control and gave her a nasty headache, even though the pill appeared identical to that enjoyed by her friends. She went home early and felt depressed for the next two days.

Although I have found that Ecstasy temporarily stops pain such as toothache, some people have reported headaches and nausea accentuated without any of the pleasant effects. I believe it depends on what you focus your attention.

Ecstasy can upset people's lives. There are many examples of young people squandering ridiculous amounts of money on E and only living for their next binge. One known personally to me is that of a 23-year-old art student who used to live for the weekends when she and her friends took Ecstasy, and spent the rest of the time in a state of depression. This lasted for about a year until eventually she was thrown out of college, which made her even more depressed. However, two years later she emerged again as her former vibrant self, and looking back saw that her problems had resulted as much from her parents' divorce as from taking Ecstasy through which, she says, she made good friends.

In 1991, a survey conducted in Sydney(34) found that 80% of those who tried Ecstasy thought that it was fun to use while 7% did not (13% found it 'neutral'). Three-quarters of regular users in Manchester said they usually enjoyed Ecstasy and most said it was 'here to stay' in their lives, but 18% enjoyed it less than they used to.(182) Another Australian survey among amphetamine users showed that Ecstasy was not particularly liked.(193) Much of the effect depends on the setting - if you feel relaxed anyway you are almost certain to enjoy it; although many tense people use the drug to help them relax, not everyone can yield to its effects. Clients who have used MDMA in psychotherapy - in which fun is not the object - tend to enjoy their first experience but to get absorbed in their problems on subsequent MDMA sessions.(chapter 9)

Although most people find the drug liberating and enjoy letting go, others may feel uncomfortable to be without their normal defences. Even for the same individual, a wonderful feeling of relief in a warm supportive environment can be extremely unpleasant in other circumstances. Users may come to bitterly regret having revealed their insecurity or longings when under the influence of Ecstasy and some insights, such as realising that your partner never loved you or that your dreams are not attainable, can be extremely unpleasant. To remember a traumatic situation without support can be devastating. When someone is 'on the edge' but just managing to keep life together, any of these situations may push them over, resulting in a 'nervous breakdown'.

It is important to realise that bad effects are not due to the drug alone, but to a combination of the effects of the drug and the situation at the time. A guide who has introduced MDMA to many people over the past 18 years assures me that none of them has ever had a bad experience, even though some were difficult cases. He attributes this to him being able to give whatever support was needed.(144)

Side effects These can be uncomfortable, but hardly any users find that side effects spoil the experience. Dry mouth and loss of appetite are almost universal, and various muscular reactions are common, as though some muscles resist the drug's demand to let go. These include holding the jaw tightly clenched, eyes flickering from side to side, twitches, nausea and cramp, especially as the drug first takes effect. Generally these soon pass. Side effects are more pronounced with increased use.

Another more common but less serious problem with MDMA is that many people resist the effect of the drug. This is uncomfortable, often manifesting in a headache and nausea.

A long-term side effect experienced by ravers is weight loss which, for some women, is a motive for using the drug.(35) Weight reduction is presumably caused by the combination of exercise and loss of appetite. Some women find their menstruation upset since they started using Ecstasy, but is probably an indirect effect.(200) Some women also complain of urinary tract infections, but these may be due to the effect of MDA which is often sold as Ecstasy.(173)

Some people are concerned that a long term side effect may be to alter personality. However, the only changes identified have been improvements.(157, 194)

After effects People often feel exhausted after taking Ecstasy. This 'hangover' is hardly surprising considering that the mind, and usually the body, have been so much more active than normal, and is similar to that experienced by users of LSD and amphetamine.(34)

Hangovers can be reduced by avoiding other drugs such as alcohol and ampheta mine and getting a good night's sleep afterwards. The antidepressant Prozac (and presumably other SSRIs) reduces hangover and prevents toxicity(184), although regular Prozac use may interfere with the experience.(142) Vitamins may also help(36), and so may drugs such as L-Tyrosine and L-Tryptophan.(192) Other after effects are most commonly stiffness from exercise, though depression(28, 37, 44) inability to sleep(191) and paranoia(37) sometimes occur, particularly among heavy users. Pain in the lower back may be due to dehydration of the kidneys.(200)

Medical effects When MDMA is swallowed, it is digested in the stomach and enters the blood stream. From there, some of it reaches the brain, but any MDMA that passes through the kidneys is removed and ends up in the urine - two thirds is excreted unchanged while some 7% is 'metabolised' into MDA. Every 6 hours the amount remaining in the body is roughly halved, so that after 24 hours there will be only about 3% left.(38, chapter 9) Other psychoactive drugs are excreted in a similar way, and this enables them to be 'recycled': Siberian reindeer hunters who take fly agaric mushrooms to get high drink each other's urine in order to prolong the effect.(39)

There are various chemicals called a 'neurotransmitters' naturally present in the brain which alter our mood and activity level to suit our situation. Serotonin and adrenaline are just two of many neurotransmitters that block or allow the transfer of information between brain cells. Just as adrenaline affects our activity, serotonin (or 5HT) affects our mood. The mechanism by which they work is extremely complicated and is not yet fully understood. All that is really known is that we have varying amounts of these chemicals in our brains, and that the amounts vary along with our emotional state.

MDMA causes a release of serotonin from particular brain cells, and this produces a change of mood. It also affects aspects of the body's control system such as blood pressure and pulse rate and, most importantly, body temperature. It is this that has resulted in a number of deaths at raves, which are discussed in Chapter 6.

Effects on animals Some people have described to me the effects of Ecstasy on animals. The first is from a laboratory researcher.(141) He believes that they do not enjoy any psychoactive drugs but feel confused, and that this is more so with higher animals like monkeys. However, a man described how he took E with a friend on the beach along with two German Shepherd dogs who had half an E each! He was convinced that one dog, who tended to jump up clumsily and too roughly for comfort, remained as affectionate as ever but became more sensitive and gentle; while the other dog displayed unusual signs of jealousy.

Thirdly, I have heard of Ecstasy being used as a cure-all for wild animals.(188) The theory is that many animals from birds to horses are nervous, and it is this tension that makes them ill or prevents them from getting well, especially when kept by humans.

Lastly, I have been told of race horse being doped with MDMA before racing, which, like ravers, is said to make them calm as well as energetic.

Combining Ecstasy with other drugs For an article on Combinations with Other Drugs, see my site online in both North America and Europe

Ecstasy is often taken with cannabis, alcohol, LSD ('candy-flip') or amphetamines at raves, and cannabis is widely smoked in the 'chill-out' period afterwards. Although drinking has had a comeback(41), most users feel that alcohol reduces the effect of Ecstasy. Alcohol taxes the liver and kidneys, causing dehydration, so taking it in combination with Ecstasy is likely to result in worse after effects than taking Ecstasy alone.(40, 60, 62) Similarly, when taken with amphetamine the toxicity is greater than when the drugs are taken separately.(141)

Many users in the north of England particularly like to take Ecstasy with speed (one E with half a gram of amphetamine)(40), which adds excitement and prolongs the experience. Home users in all areas generally prefer pure MDMA. The view generally held among these groups is that speed (amphetamine) spoils Ecstasy's subtle empathic quality.

Some ravers take Ecstasy alongwith LSD ('candy-flip'), with the hallucinogenic qualities of LSD adding to the warmth of the Ecstasy. This combination also extends the experience, as LSD lasts for about twice as long as MDMA, and is often used outdoors at music festivals and in natural surroundings.

Home users often refer to MDMA as a 'psychedelic amplifier' or 'catalyst', enhancing the effect of psychedelics without changing their quality. This has been tested with LSD, 2CB, MEM, 2-CT-2 and may apply to all other psychedelics. The psychedelic is taken towards the end of the strongest part of the Ecstasy trip.(144) Some people use E to ensure against bad trips: once the MDMA has established its usual positive effect, the course is set for the LSD trip. Others find that LSD loses its usual effect and simply amplifies the effect of the E.(128)

A popular combination among home users is MDMA with 2CB taken towards the end of an E trip. As the 2CB takes over from the MDMA, the experience is subtly changed towards a more intellectual viewpoint from which some people find it easier to assimilate any insights gained.(31) For hedonists taking E with a lover, the 2CB provides the erotic component of love suppressed by the Ecstasy.(128)

Nitrous oxide ('laughing gas') is said to be quite enjoyable while on E and can help if you get stuck in a particular state of mind(128). Ketamine can also be used while on Ecstasy for self exploration(31), and sometimes also at raves though I have not heard of good experiences.

Drugs with similar effects For more recent information on this topic, see Herbal Ecstasy and Other Legal Highs on my site online in both North America and Europe

When you buy 'Ecstasy', it may not be MDMA but MDEA or MDA. These are all 'psychedelic amphetamines' with fairly similar effects and the amounts of each sold are about the same. Connoisseurs invariably prefer MDMA because of its empathic quality or warmth, but many users (and some dealers) can't tell the difference. MDA lasts twice as long (8-12 hours) and has a rather more amphetamine-like effect without producing much in the way of feelings of closeness. MDEA (sometimes sold as 'Eve'), lasts a rather shorter time (3-5 hours) than MDMA (4-6 hours) and is nearer to MDMA in effect, but still lacks its communicative qualities.(38)

The effects of all these drugs wears off after a few successive days' use, a phenomenon known as tolerance. However, there is no 'cross tolerance' between MDA and MDMA. Someone who has taken so much MDMA that it has no more effect on them can still get off on MDA.(12)

Future drugs like Ecstasy The conditions are right for a flood of new and interesting drugs coming onto the black market. There is increased demand from both explorers and hedonists combined with new techniques which will enable drugs to be made with the effects users want without unwanted side effects.

There is a considerable amount of research into new psychoactive drugs now being carried out both legally (as basic research and in the search for new medicines) and illicitly. To some extent it is now possible to design a drug to produce a desired effect, while new techniques and equipment have opened the way to creating whole new ranges of drugs which were previously too difficult to synthesise.(141)

In addition, new methods allow the effects of new drugs to be assayed safely and quickly, such as by implanting electrodes in the brains of living animals. Recently drugs with very specific effects have been produced, and hallucinogens that are even more potent than LSD.(141) It has also been shown that the desired effects of Ecstasy can be separated from the toxic effects.(176, 184) The way is now open - and the search is on (illicitly) - to produce something that has the empathic qualities of MDMA without toxicity. One approach is to find a more potent drug so that a smaller, and therefore less toxic, dose is needed.(141)

Future psychoactive drugs may well be tailored according to fashion. As people become bored with the current fashion and move towards a new way of behaviour (such as being more grounded, perhaps) drugs will be created to produce the desired mood.

Sex Although the media portray Ecstasy as an aphrodisiac, sexual arousal is not an effect of taking MDMA. In fact the drug tends to inhibit erections in men (and male rats(190)). However, people who are already feeling in a sexy mood as the drug takes effect may become aroused.(128) Many users never become sexually aroused on E and find the state quite incompatible. However, for others it depends on their libido at the time and this in turn depends on who they are with and the surrounding atmosphere, so that a place with sexual vibes such as a club may induce sexual behaviour while this virtually never happens at raves.(200) In general, there is a tendency away from sexual desire but the drug allows one to continue on that energy level(165), although erections are inhibited and orgasms suppressed.(44) Behaviour at raves during the first few years, at events where nearly everyone was on E, was very different to that at alcohol-based clubs, and seemed to follow from the lack of male sexual aggression. Hugging and even caressing strangers was acceptable on a sensual level without implying a sexual advance.(41) Ravers would have a sense of belonging at any club or event where others were on E.

According to Sheila Henderson writing in 1992, a researcher studying the way young women use Ecstasy and author of papers entitled Women, sexuality and Ecstasy(41) and Luvdup and DeElited(42), "Sex is not one of the foremost pleasures offered by Ecstasy. . . Most men have the opposite to an erection: a shrinking penis". Women can even enjoy snogging at raves because it is 'safe' - not a prelude to having sex. They are less likely to have casual sex following a night raving than after going to an alcohol-based club. As one girl put it, "you don't go to a rave to cop". In fact, sexual safety is an attraction at raves in contrast with alcohol-based clubs which are seen as a cattle market. However, by 1994 Ecstasy was not the predominant drug used in most venues(174) and this atmosphere only survived in a few circles such as travellers' parties.

Other sociologists have noted that sexual behaviour at raves is less than at other social activities(33), and that, on Ecstasy, "thoughts about sex are not always matched by desire". Though some found sex enhanced by the drug, others were disappointed.(37) However, some women said that the chill-out period after raving was "the ideal time for long, slow sex".(41) This view is shared by the girlfriends of working class men in the north, where Ecstasy has the reputation of being good for sex on comedown.(40) An American pamphlet claimed that: "Sexual experience only occurs when it is appropriate on a heart level for both of you. . . Know that whatever you choose to create will be a perfect and appropriate choice".(43)

The question whether Ecstasy use increases risk factors concerning sexual behaviour is being examined in depth by Andrew Thomson. His study is not due to be complete until 1996(appendix 5), but preliminary results show that over three quarters of those interviewed who regularly used Ecstasy in clubs had practised sex while under its influence, and that one in six of these said that the effect of Ecstasy made it less likely that they would practice safe sex.(125)

Two other studies have indicated that injecting polydrug users who take Ecstasy have more sex than those who don't; but that amphetamine users who took E were less at risk of catching HIV because they were more likely to use condoms and no more likely to have sex.(155)

A group of Swiss psychotherapists (see chapter 9), who have experience of some hundreds of people in group and individual sessions, tell me that they have never come across a participant becoming sexually aroused while on MDMA, although it does sometimes happen on LSD. They say that sexual longings are sometimes expressed, but not the immediate desire for sex. The Swiss therapists appear to take it for granted that MDMA suppresses sexual arousal, and that men cannot have erections while on the drug.

However, a survey of users in the San Francisco area conducted in 1985(44) found that only half of the men who responded said it was more difficult to have an erection on MDMA, though, of those who said they had had sex on the drug, two thirds said they had problems in achieving an orgasm. While the great majority of users of both sexes said that the drug had no effect on their sexual desires, some reported a desire for sexual activities "that implied they felt free of inhibitions, such as group sex". Most respondents said that MDMA had made no lasting difference to their sexual pattern, although some reported positive changes such as being more open and relaxed. All the women and nearly all of the men thought that MDMA helped them to become emotionally closer to others. A third thought that MDMA had helped to overcome inhibitions, typically that it had "cleared pelvic blocks". The survey also found there to be no increase in the initiation of sexual activity, but slightly more receptiveness to it. In their conclusion, the authors comment that MDMA is a curious drug in that it can increase emotional closeness and enhance sexual activity, yet it does not increase the desire to initiate sex.

Respondents to an Australian survey(34) described the effects of Ecstasy as 'sensual' rather than 'sexual'. In contrast, an unpublished survey of users in London(45) found that 89% reported sexual arousal and 67% more sexual activity on MDMA.

I believe the explanation for such contradictory reports is that the effect varies considerably according to the user's expectations. Surveys may also produce results which are biased towards those who are more potent on the drug (or said they were), while those who felt that the questionnaire might reveal them to be inadequate were under-represented. There may also be some suggestion involved: the author of the London survey told me that he had experienced a sexual advance from a woman on E, and that he would expect increased sexual activity from users of a drug that increased energy and reduced inhibition. Similarly, I surmise that the Swiss men who were treated with MDMA were suggestible to their therapists' belief that men cannot have erections on the drug. I also suspect that many people do not make a clear distinction between sensuality and sexuality.

Women become sexually aroused more often than men, but find orgasm suppressed. Couples who have had sex on E say that it is unusually nice even without orgasm; they feel more loving than passionate and unusually sensitive to each other. It seems that a universal effect of the drug is to remove male sexual aggression, or, as one woman put it, "to bring out the feminine qualities in men". People on Ecstasy become more sensual and less lustful.

This sensual-rather-than-sexual aspect of the drug gives rise to non-sexual orgies at some parties, referred to as 'feely-feely' or 'snake slithering'.(165) People indulge in group sensual delights through caressing and slithering over one another, though I've only heard of this in Australia and California.

The suppressive effect of Ecstasy on sexual drive has been a strong influence on rave culture. On Ecstasy, small talk and flirting seem ridiculously hollow, and so this sort of behaviour has become taboo in rave culture. Women became truly liberated; able to let go and enjoy themselves without fear of being taken advantage of by aggressive men, and this allowed them to approach men who they don't know. Similarly, women who didn't feel threatened by men felt free to respond warmly. The atmosphere inspired confidence and independence so that girls didn't feel the need to be under the protection of a boyfriend, often going to the rave with a group of friends but freely mixing with other people.(41) However, this atmosphere has diminished in circles where alcohol and other drugs have largely replaced Ecstasy. Even then, women are less bothered by men due to group pressure to accept their liberated behaviour.

Another social effect of Ecstasy is to break down barriers between homosexuals and heterosexuals. Women are free to hug one another without being thought of as lesbian, and gays are as likely to be hugged by women as men.(42)