A Club Drug, Posttraumatic Stress, and Hannah Arendt05-14-2021
As communications manager for the Hannah Arendt Center, and the holder of an undergraduate degree in philosophy, I am familiar, at least at face value, with Hannah Arendt’s adherence to phenomenology. In fact, our tagline and title for Amor Mundi reflects the notion that the world exists as it is, and, for Arendt, it is up to us to face it, work to understand it, and come to love it. I have not read the copious amounts of Arendt as have many an Amor Mundi contributor before me, but I can surmise her fealty to the notion that changing oneself in order to shift the subjective experience of the objective world is as important as the dedicated effort to bringing about change in that objective, external world.
This week, the New York Times reported on the successful phase III FDA trial of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, MDMA, more commonly known as the club drug Ecstasy or Molly. Ecstasy has been around since the 1960s, and was, in fact, first synthesized by the German pharmaceutical company Merck in 1912 during a search for drugs that had medical potential to treat hypertension. But the drug was shelved for decades. Then, in 1966, a Dow chemist named Alexander Shulgin began exploring a series of forgotten compounds and came across MDMA. In 1967, he published a scientific paper noting the psychotropic properties of MDMA, recounting an experience of walking the streets of San Francisco with a friend who, for the first time, expressed a lifelong sense of guilt over the death of her mother who had died giving birth to her. Shulgin noted that the drug appeared to relieve the guilt and free his friend from the shackles of such a durable trauma.
Western medicine is traditionally and by rote focused on the treatment of symptoms in the management of disease. The history of medicine differs across the world: eastern healthcare has often focused on stimulating the immune system; native American healers, such as the one described in Carlos Castaneda’s examination of Yaqui culture, envision malady as malevolent spirits one must fight in a nether world achievable only through the gateway of psychoactive plant preparations. Allopathy and Osteopathy, the two main schools of modern medicine, rely heavily on pharmaceuticals and devices to treat disease mainly through approaching the measurable evidence of those diseases.
Why does this news that MDMA is approaching a status as an approved medicine relate to Hannah Arendt? Because much like the Yaqui way of knowledge, MDMA offers patients suffering posttraumatic stress disorder an experience through which they have the opportunity to change their perception of the world in order that they may learn to love it again. The root causes of PTSD lie in trauma, of course, but also in a hyperactive relationship between the parts of the brain that manage memory and our ancient responses to danger. The sufferer of PTSD relives his or her trauma with complete memory flashback: the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of the offending event are relived over and again until life in the present becomes impossible. When a PTSD patient takes MDMA, their brain goes through a rapid and intense reorganization of interneuronal communication - in other words, they experience the world in a profoundly different way. During this experience, trained psychiatrists can help them unpack their traumatic memories without triggering those sensory flashbacks that had, up to that point, made talking about their trauma impossible. Put another way, the intense drug experience helps sufferers of PTSD learn how to exist in the world again. It seems to me, then, that even though it may not be aware of it, modern medicine is having a particularly Arendtian moment.