So a few weeks after David’s death, she began seeing a cognitive behavioral therapist at the University of Oklahoma. He diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a condition characterized by flashbacks, feelings of hopelessness, and emotional numbing that affects 8 million U.S. adults (81 percent of them women) and can occur when someone experiences a traumatic event like military combat or sexual assault. But even with weekly therapy, Murphy was still suicidal two years after the accident. Desperate for something that would keep her alive for her daughter, she sought out alternative PTSD treatments online, and finally, as a last-ditch effort, took a weeklong trip to Boulder, Colorado, to join a progressive clinical trial that would eventually save her life: a psychotherapy session catalyzed by the hallucinogen MDMA.
Better known by its street names, Molly or Ecstasy, and long viewed as a party drug, 3,4-methylenedioxy- methamphetamine, or MDMA, is currently being studied as a treatment for chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD in four FDA-approved, phase-two clinical studies: in Boulder; Charleston, South Carolina; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Beer Yaakov, Israel (international studies can be used in the FDA-approval process). Over the course of about five months, the trials’ 98 subjects, including 54 women, ingest between 75 and 188 milligrams of MDMA during three- to five-day psychotherapy sessions (comparable to a street dose), supplemented by about 20 hours of non-drug-enhanced talk therapy with mental-health professionals. Lauded for its ability to break down emotional barriers, enhance communication skills, and promote deep introspection, the drug acts not as a medication, but as a catalyst to psychotherapy, many times achieving in a few sessions what might take years in traditional therapeutic settings.