Drug Underdose

Ayelet Waldman and the art of getting by on a tiny quantity of LSD.

Ayelet Waldman (Photo by Claire Lewis)

Before last year, Ayelet Waldman, a Berkeley author, mother of four, and the wife of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, would have never considered taking psychedelic drugs on a consistent basis. But when mood swings brought about by premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) became too much for both her and her family to bear, she became desperate.

She was willing to try anything. So she tried acid — and it worked.

Waldman shares this experience in her book, A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference In My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. The book has garnered national attention, and Waldman wrapped up her publicity tour at a City Arts & Lectures at the Nourse Theater in mid-February. She addressed a crowd that looked like a cross between a Michael Pollan lecture on sustainable okra and a fundraiser for a Burning Man camp.

Waldman explained that she was fed up with the “vagaries of mood” that had plagued her as long as she could remember. After years of underwhelming (and generally ineffective) experiences with therapy, meditation, and extensive medications, she was desperate to get out of her head.

She stumbled across a 2011 book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic and Sacred Journeys, by noted psychologist and psychedelic researcher Dr. James Fadiman, who chronicled patients’ experiences with “microdosing” either LSD or psilocybin, to improve their mood, concentration, and general state of wellbeing.

It’s generally understood that a standard dose of LSD is between 100 and 120 micrograms, whereas a microdose consists of just 10 micrograms. It’s what’s considered a “sub-perceptual” amount, and can also be done with other psychedelic drugs in lieu of LSD, so long as one only ingests between 5 and 10 percent of a “recreational” dose.

Waldman reached out to Fadiman and took part in a self-study program on the the effects of microdosing that Fadiman and his research partner, Dr. Sophia Korb, run to this day.

Notably, subjects must acquire the acid on their own. Fadiman and Korb are very clear about the fact that they have nothing to do with the procurement of illicit substances — and like heroin, MDMA, or (laughably) marijuana, lysergic acid diethylamide is a Schedule 1 substance, which means the federal government deems it to have no legitimate medical value.

This proved challenging for Waldman, who doesn’t like the taste of alcohol and only uses marijuana medicinally. She ultimately made contact, through a friend, with an anonymous and aging professor from UC Berkeley. Before she knew it, a package arrived in her mailbox containing a tiny blue bottle and a note signed, “Lewis Carroll.” For the next month, she proceeded to take 10 micrograms of LSD every three days and kept a journal.

Waldman’s experience was overwhelmingly positive. At the end of her book, she reports mild side effects, such as heightened awareness to sound and a slight dizziness, but noted that she was overall in a much better place than she was at the beginning of the month. Her family — especially her children — noticed a dramatic shift in her mood. She also explained that instead of causing her to feel overly ecstatic, microdosing made her more insightful.

“It allowed me a little space to consider how to act in accordance with my values, not just react to external stimuli,” she writes. “This, not the razzle-dazzle of pleasure, was its gift.”

Is this possible? Enlightenment in an eyedropper, all without any of the habit-forming or physical drawbacks of pharmaceutical mood stabilizers on the market today?

Fadiman was first introduced to psychedelics in the 1960s by his former professor, Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), who gave him psilocybin for the first time. He was later part of a team of researchers that conducted an experiment in which 28 working professionals, many of them senior scientists at various Bay Area tech companies, were given the opportunity to address technical problems they had been working on without success for at least three months — while high on 100 micrograms of LSD.

Although participants reported breakthroughs in creative problem-solving, the Food and Drug Administration shut the study down in 1966, and most research on psychedelics dried up by the end of that decade.

“If we gave the study today — and a number of people want to replicate it — it would probably work just as well,” Fadiman said.

Asked which modern-day problems might be best teased out on a head full of acid, he replied, “One idea would be to get the government to make regulations on psychedelics based on science, not on politics.”

Fadiman and Korb will continue collecting data from participants in the same microdosing study that Waldman took part in until they present their findings at the MAPS (Multidisciplinary Associations of Psychedelic Studies) Psychedelic Science 2017 Convention in Oakland in April. There, they’ll turn over the data they’ve gathered from roughly 700 studies to other doctors and scientists with the hopes that further discoveries can be made in the field of psychedelic research.

“One of my goals is to have more conventional medical and psychiatric hospitals start to do microdose research, and that’s happening,” Radiman said, noting that more research studies are already popping up more in Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands. “I feel like I’ve been able to be part of discovery, and that’s the best part of science. I’m a searcher, not a researcher.”

I spoke to another member of MAPS, a physician who asked to remain anonymous. While she’s a big supporter of microdosing, she also pointed out that some medical concerns exist regarding the quality of the substance used and the age and level of brain development of the user. She also said that while there’s no risk of physical addiction to LSD, there is — as with any habitual practice — always the risk of a psychological or emotional addiction.

However, she still thinks microdosing is in many cases better than what’s currently out there for treating mood disorders.

“If it were legal, I would completely prescribe it. I personally don’t like to prescribe SSRIs [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors] and antidepressants, because people get truly addicted to them. It can really mess with their brains,” she said, also citing the suicide risks associated with those drugs.

No matter where you stand on recreational drug use, it seems inarguable that microdosing deserves more clinical investigation. Prior to its prohibition, more than 1,000 research papers on its effects were published worldwide, and Fadiman reports relatively consistent benefits across the board. Healthy people who microdose generally feel better, more creative, and more insightful in their daily lives, while those with psychological issues report feelings of relief from otherwise chronic conditions.

In Waldman’s case, it was a life-saver. But now she’s left with the dilemma of finding more LSD — something she does not wish to do again, illegally.

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