glitchy photo of man and woman sitting next to each other
Author Seth Lorinczi and his wife, Julianna

The Night MDMA Saved My Life

When our therapist suggested MDMA, I was taken aback: We were here to get divorced, not dance. But afterwards, nothing would ever be the same again.

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The therapist’s name was Renee. She was roughly my age, sharp-featured and trim, with long hair pulled into an orderly bun. She greeted us warmly and gestured us in. Julianna my wife, and I sat down warily on the couch. “So,” Renee said, her voice as precise as her hair, “Tell me a bit about why you’re here.”

A few weeks before, Julianna had sat me down on the edge of our bed. “I can’t take this anymore,” she said. “It isn’t working. We need to try something new or we need to give up.”

Julianna had recently begun consulting with a shaman. I hardly cared that he was using Brazilian chants and capoeira moves to lead her into deeper realms of herself, or that she and I hadn’t had sex in months. It wasn’t so much we’d fallen out of love; I wasn’t sure we’d ever been in it.

“I don’t know,” I said, desperate to avoid this conversation. “Do you really need someone to tell you I’m the wrong person for you?” This was a tactic I’d settled on in the last few months: Pointing out all the ways I was wrong for her.

“Why are you doing this?” she said, her eyes narrowing in anger. “What do you really want?”

”I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” I said, my blood rising too. The question enraged me because I had no satisfactory answer. “I just want to feel like I matter. Instead, I feel like…like I barely exist.”

“Baby,” said Julianna. “Look at me.” There was no mistaking the tenderness in her voice, but undergirding it was a hard rime of despair. “I’m going to make an appointment with Renee. We have to find a different way, or we need to step away from each other.”

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Now, in Renee’s office, Julianna spoke first. “We love each other, that’s not in doubt,” she said, throwing me a glance. “We’ve had a long history together, much of it wonderful. But it feels more like we’re roommates than a married couple. There’s so much of him I don’t know.”

Renee turned to me. I cleared my throat. “It’s true, I love Julianna with all my heart. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone kinder. But I feel like she wants someone different. Someone who reads the Bhagavad Gita and does yoga and meditates at dawn. I just feel like I’m the wrong person for her.”

“I get it,” said Renee. “So…what do you want from a partnership?”

Blood thrummed behind my temples. We were finally here, on the couch, and still I had no answer.

“I…I’m a private person. I just want to…I don’t know, to feel like I’m doing something with my life. That I’m succeeding, that I’m making progress.”

“Progress towards what?” asked Renee.

“Towards mattering. Towards doing something…constructive.” Nobody had to point out how lame this sounded.

The room was quiet and still, afternoon sunlight peeking through slatted blinds. Julianna and Renee looked at me quizzically, as if I were on the verge of sharing something important. 

“Could I have a glass of water?” I asked.

The rest of that session, and the next one, ground on like this. The talk turned to how to go about the process of separating, to make it as kind and respectful as we could. That’s when Renee surprised us both.

“How would you feel,” she said at the end of our second meeting, “about trying a session under the influence of MDMA?”

For a moment I was too surprised to say anything. I glanced at her bookshelf, where a copy of Psychedelic Psychiatry perched innocently alongside the DSM.

“Uh…wow,” I said. “I mean, sure…I guess?”

Julianna didn’t hesitate. “Totally,” she said, turning to me. “What do we have to lose?”

Just like that, it was settled. That night, as I stood before the bathroom mirror, I paused to study my reflection. My own face looked unfamiliar, its contours merging with those who’d come before me. I heard the faintest of whispers—was that my grandmother Csurka, murmuring in her soft Hungarian?—hectoring and scolding me from some far-off place. A tape loop someone had forgotten to switch off.

Two weeks later, Julianna and I drove through a gloomy late Saturday rain to Renee’s office. My heart pounded heavily in the quiet darkness. If you’d asked me where I was going, I’d have said it was to the firing squad.

READ: I Love You—Let’s Trip Together

spinning circle

When Julianna and I entered Renee’s office, the room we’d known only in daylight had transformed. Now the walls were lit by soft electric candlelight; nests of blankets and pillows beckoned us to the floor, not the couch. I sat down and made myself comfortable, so much as my thumping heart would allow.

Renee had transformed as well. In daylight, she exuded a curious blend of warmth and incisiveness, never leaving a thought unfinished. Now her clinical persona had softened, revealing a gently witchy energy. I wasn’t quite sure what her role was, and I felt both excitement and unease. But Julianna’s eager calm radiated out to me. If nothing else, we were somewhere—anywhere—besides our dark house, circling each other like prisoners.

Renee sat down with us and produced two tiny baggies. Inside each were two capsules, one to take now and one in a couple of hours. I studied them but they didn’t seem magical, or even special. I looked up at Julianna, and I said “This is really it” or something equally dumb, not even knowing what I meant. The end? The beginning? I’d never doubted that I loved her; she just wanted someone who loved nature, who was bolder and more expressive than I was. That was okay; some people just weren’t meant to be together, and now we were facing the fact we were those people.

“Deepest knowing, deepest healing, deepest medicine,” said Renee. Julianna and I looked at each other squarely, and then we each swallowed the first pills.

For what felt like far too long, nothing happened. Julianna, Renee, and I sat in our pillowy nests. The electric candles threw their soft shadows over the walls. I quelled my fear by imagining the life I’d soon be living: Alone in the house my wife and daughter had once occupied, surrounded by all the musical gear I’d so painstakingly collected. The complications of this vision—What will this do to our daughter? How will we afford to keep the house when we barely earn enough to scrape by?—felt reassuringly distant.

The clock dripped on. Now a subtle shift unfolded, a quickening and a softening. Some gentle hand passed over the top of my head, and as it did my thoughts of the future receded behind a thick curtain. There is only the present. I sit in silence for a while until a distant part of my body beckons: my bladder, which boasts the capacity of a single-shot espresso cup. I rise and pad down the hall to the bathroom. Now I recognize a new tilt to the floor, a gentle flex in my joints as I stop by the mirror and study my reflection a few beats too long. I know that MDMA isn’t a hallucinogen; I don’t see contrails splitting the air or an electric grid overlaid across my vision. But a curious thrumming comes over me, even as my musculature and bones begin to liquify and sag. I hurry back to the office.

Warmth. Sitting back into the blanket of my nest, I’m held in soft light. Julianna lies shaking on the floor underneath her blanket; Renee kneels next to her. I have never seen this happen before, her entire body twitching and jerking, eyes closed and that beautiful face upturned. I feel afraid that something’s gone wrong, that something is being let in or let out that shouldn’t be. Renee turns and sends a comforting look my way. Everything is okay. Everything is good.

The final glimmers of daylight throw a spectral glow over the room. I’m fully caught in the medicine’s undertow now, my joints cushioned as if by thick oil. Dry lips, slow movements, a gentle drift into some new and warm place, fear dropping away like molted and spent feathers. I have the distinct sense I’m less leaving my body than entering it for the first time. I’ve never brought my consciousness here, not in quite this way: to the inside of myself. I’m gently being shaken awake, and I feel a new architecture inside me, bodies within my body. Clear glass tubes and pipettes, spotless porcelain arteries through which I tumble, ever deeper inside.

Earlier, in my ordinary state, my mind spun stories of my essential brokenness. Now I see that I am not broken, not cursed. Everything I say I’m waiting for—that moment on the vanishing horizon when things magically come together—it waits patiently for me. All the stories of time wasted and opportunities missed are only stories, ones I’ve told in order to maintain my illusion of tragedy.

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Now a new story rises up. This one is about my mother, and I know that it’s true. It’s that Friday evening, the night she left for the hospital and never came back. I am four and a half years old. Sitting at the top of the staircase, I feel the nubby crunch of carpeting beneath my flannel pajamas. Below me, on the landing by the front door, my father is bundling her in a shawl. She turns towards me and I see that her face is ashen and drawn, her eyes wide. My mother is scared, scared out of her wits. I see that now. There is no false cheer here, no “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon!” I don’t recall any words passing between us at all. The frame stops now, the details frozen. Dried eucalyptus in an earthenware jar; the wood-framed mirror on the wall. My parents turn back to the door. The scene repeats, locked now in endless loop. Me, the door. The door, me. I recognize with merciful softness that this is the last time I can be certain I saw her. It is tender, this memory. It is deeply sad. But it is also a gift, a tiny glimpse into an earlier me, not the broken one. It is painless. Not numb. Painless.

Far away, in the therapist’s office, the storm passing through Julianna’s body has lifted. I bob back up to the surface too, held in the warm embrace of the candlelit room. To my side, my wife stirs in her blanketed nest, then sleepily pulls herself upright. Although she’s already a physically beautiful woman, something extra shines through her now, a radiance illumining her fine-boned face, those wondrous, bottomless blue eyes. She looks into my own and says with quiet and total clarity: “I don’t want to get a divorce.”

READ: MDMA Therapy is Almost Legal—But Who Will Have Access?

spinning circle

With a soft thump, the movie playing behind my eyes skips off the sprocket: There’s my wife and daughter driving away from our house; there’s me sitting in the basement surrounded by piles of broken guitars. Future movie-memories. But I don’t choose them. 

I look into Julianna’s eyes. They have an unearthly and wide-pupiled radiance; I know that’s the medicine at work. But something else is at play, a subtle melding. I am not seeing through her eyes, yet somehow we’ve become a We. There is no effort required; it simply is. It is shocking in its simplicity.

I am standing with her in the kitchen of our San Francisco apartment, twenty years before. I’m asking her to join with me, to be my partner. Some half-illuminated part of me knows that if she says yes, we won’t have an easy time of it. Our wounds will rise up to challenge us, to hold us apart. We will run deep into primeval forests to escape one another, climb icy mountain passes, anything to avoid that final surrender. But it won’t be for nothing. If we manage to stay together, if stubborn will or inertia or even something like faith holds us together, something tells me that beyond this there awaits a wide-openness, a self-knowing and a love greater than any I could possibly imagine.

Now, held in the medicine’s embrace, my body thrums with a simple knowing: That we are not here to suffer each other; that our souls have some contract to fulfill. We hang there together, up in the clouds. All the tragic stories I’ve told about us are dropping away, beautiful withered leaves that have served their purpose, ready now for mulching.

Julianna and I ride the waves of the medicine together. Quiet music, soft blankets, cooling draughts of coconut water and almond milk to counteract the medicine’s thermostatic charge. Sometimes Renee offers gentle guidance. “Can you feel the wisdom of your protectors?” she asks me. “The parts of you that kept you hidden and safe?” I can. Then she goes quiet for long stretches and I worry, perversely, if she’s bored.

Mostly I sit in quiet awe. I feel my heart coming online with unexpected capability, and I’m genuinely surprised. My heart? This isn’t an organ I’ve allowed myself to orient towards, and for a moment I long for my cynical facade. But I can’t deny what’s happening. The medicine is illuminating what some deeper aspect of me—my soul—knows to be true. I feel a deep, full-body trust in myself that is as foreign as it is exhilarating. There is no second-guessing it.

This night will end, as all nights must. Some eight hours after we arrived, Julianna and I hug and thank Renee effusively and walk out into Portland’s deserted downtown. We return to our empty home—our daughter is with her grandmother—and quietly remove our clothing, brush our teeth, and climb into bed, just like we always do. But we aren’t the same people who left. From this night forward, nothing will be the same again.

As sleep slowly overtakes me, a long-forgotten reel of family movies plays somewhere deep inside me. There’s my mother in her complicated ‘70s hairstyle; there’s my sister, two and a half years younger than me. She doesn’t remember our mother at all. And there’s Csurka. The reel clicks to a stop.

My Hungarian grandmother was a fixture for the first dozen-odd years of my life, and yet I realize that I knew nearly nothing about her life story. She was born in the final year of the 19th century; her first love died in World War I; twenty-five years later, she and our family survived both the Holocaust and the Battle of Budapest. And yet I barely even asked anyone about her. I realize, as if for the first time, that I have a backstory. And that whatever my family survived lives on in me as well.

This is an excerpt from Death Trip: A Post-Holocaust Psychedelic Memoir by Seth Lorinczi. You can order the book here.

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