Note from the editor: This article first appeared on Forbes.com.
You might deem MDMA a substance reserved for underground raves and people in their early 20s, but what if it was a medicine that could be used to help foster connection and deepen relationships in later years, too? Charley Wininger is a Brooklyn-based psychotherapist who has spent the last 20 years disproving the party drug stereotype around MDMA, and credits it with bringing a kind of “magic” to his marriage, career and life as a senior citizen.
Now amid a worldwide pandemic that has forced people to isolate from one another, the author says that “rolling” on the so-called chemical of connection could offer social and emotional benefits to people of all ages and at all stages of life.
In his soon-to-be released book, Listening to Ecstasy: The Transformative Power of MDMA, the self-proclaimed hippie tells of his use of mind-altering substances in the ‘60s and his current involvement in Brooklyn’s underground psychedelic scene.
Part memoir and part guidebook, Wininger writes of the life-changing effect that MDMA has had on his marriage to his wife Shelley, and his practice as a psychotherapist, while also countering the narrative that MDMA is a substance to be feared with data and tips for safe use.
Strengthening bonds at mid-life and beyond
While today MDMA and psychedelics are being increasingly studied for conditions such as PTSD, end-of-life anxiety, alcoholism and even social anxiety, Charley, 71, and Shelley, 69, first introduced MDMA to their marriage in 2001, long before academic interest in psychedelics began to resurface.
While Charley had experimented with different psychedelics in his youth, Shelley was a nurse and had spent the entirety of her life avoiding drugs, even going so far as to leaving the room when a joint was passed around during a frat party in her college years, she recalls. “I was so straight-laced… and I stayed that way until I met Charley,” she says. Ironically, it was her idea to take ecstasy together. By the time she and Charley had met in 2000, he had dabbled with and already given up on MDMA (before he had become familiar with safety protocols for optimal use).
“Our relationship was already pretty strong. I’d say we were on a roll without ‘rolling’,” Charley says. At the time, the couple was in their early fifties. What came after was “a profound, immediate shift” with just one use, fostering increased connection as they transitioned into seniorhood.
“We discovered MDMA could serve as a kind of emotional superglue for relationships,” he says. “We took what was already really good and added a whole other layer of magic, depth and profundity. Sharing this chemical chemistry and adding it to our existing sexual chemistry has really taught us that experiencing play, fun and joy can be transformational.”
Can ecstasy breed empathy?
Beyond improving their relationship, the Winingers also say that using MDMA opened them up to a community in New York City they didn’t know existed, one full of freeing experiences and opportunities for friendships with people of all ages.
“We entered this forbidden world of drug users in the New York City vicinity, and found the world to be enchanted,” Charley says. “It was a real revelation for us in that respect. We’re taught in school and by law enforcement that the people who hang around drugs are the wrong crowd. I don’t know about other drugs, but when it comes to psychedelics and MDMA, we found it really to be the right crowd.”
Since 2001, the Winingers have tried to schedule four to six “rolls” or experiences a year, sometimes just the two of them and other times with a small group of friends. In the broadest sense, Charley says, the purpose is to take their relationship to a deeper place. More specifically, both he and Shelley have been able to work on areas like forgiveness, empathy, and self-confidence, even envisioning future life experiences with one another.
“It’s like a vacation, especially in these times,” says Shelley, who was able to heal from contentious relationships with her mother and ex-husband while using MDMA. While he cannot legally use MDMA in his practice or encourage others to do so, Charley says his personal use has made him a better psychotherapist in several ways.
“It’s deepened my ability for empathy, which of course is a very important part of the job,” he says, noting that when MDMA was used legally by psychologists in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the drug was informally referred to as ‘empathy’ before it became known as ecstasy. “It has deepened my ability to have compassion for my clients and be present with them in an authentic way.”
In addition, Charley says MDMA could help people to feel less disconnected from one another, something particularly important during the Covid-19 pandemic. “It can help you connect with yourself, with your loved ones and with the world at large,” he says, “and that is especially important now when we live in a time of isolation and fear.”
What about the Tuesday blues?
While MDMA is known for causing feelings of love and euphoria as a result of an increased release in serotonin, it’s also known for a rather depressing comedown effect caused by the depletion of serotonin that generally occurs a few days after consuming (hence the nickname). An entire chapter of Wininger’s book is dedicated to tips for responsible recreational use that he says can help to reduce this and other unpleasant side effects that may come with using MDMA recreationally (or “celebrationally” as he sometimes refers to it).
Wininger suggests taking the supplement 5-HTP both the evening of the MDMA experience and the one after, and making sure nothing is planned the following day so that one may catch up on sleep. He emphasizes the importance of staying hydrated, and strictly avoiding other substances such as alcohol. (The only thing he might introduce later in a roll, he admits, is cannabis.) Working with a trained guide or facilitator could also be helpful.
“Think beforehand about what you’d like to accomplish during your time in that rare and unique space together,” he says. “Let the medicine lead the way, and don’t impose anything on the time that you spend together. It’s certainly not the time to confess an affair.”
But his most important piece of advice? “Only use pure MDMA.”
As for where to get it? That’s about the only information Charley can’t provide.
Editor, Inside the Jar
Hippie. Tripper. Grappler. Author. Anarchist
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Whatever. We. Fucking. Want.
It’s expensive. It’s impractical. It makes everything photographed on it look like it took place in the 1970s. So why bother with film?
A few years ago I planned a solo road trip to Haida Gwaii. I drove up in my admittedly unequipped Toyota Echo (thankfully the weather cooperated on my 16-hour drive) and spent the days around my spring birthday staying with a friend in the village of Skidegate.
I took four cameras: two digital SLRs, an instant camera, and a Canon AE-1, circa 1976. It had been my dad’s, and was the first camera I’d ever used. I’d shot hundreds of rolls of black-and-white film with it in high school but for several years it had joined the other vintage cameras I’d collected on a shelf in my bedroom. I figured a trip which I intended to photograph heavily required a little bit of variety, so I dusted it off and shelled out $50 for five rolls of Fujicolor Pro 400H 35mm film for the first time since I’d studied photography in college.
“The more important thing is, we wanted to give people access to the psilocybin experience—and to confirm, or not—that all these things that had happened to us were really happening to us; that it really did seem to open up the doorways to some very strange places. We were looking for affirmation or confirmation of our own experiences.”