Illustrated by Jihyang Lim

Why Is Everyone Talking About Microdosing LSD?

Ayelet Waldman’s new book takes on LSD

Phone interviews are difficult. They often feel contextless and stilted; they always have rough and awkward beginnings. Plus, well, I'm not even very good at carrying on a phone conversation with my own mother, so on what level should I be trusted to do so with someone I've never met? 

And yet: Sometimes—sometimes—I get lucky, and the moment the call begins a weird sort of magic takes place in which the predictable rough and awkward beginning is smoothed over thanks to the person with whom I'm talking. Such was the case recently when I spoke with writer Ayelet Waldman on the phone—she, from her home in Berkeley, California, me, perched on the hallway floor in my office in downtown Manhattan—about her latest book, A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. From the moment we started talking, Waldman was funny and outspoken, candid and engaging; she instantly put me at ease (which, though decidedly not her job, was lovely and generous) with a great story of having once interviewed Orrin Hatch about the drug war and getting all sorts of great quotes and feeling like, "This is going to crack the whole drug war in half," only to find that she lost the recording: "Not a fucking word, the only thing that recorded was my voice. I was ready just basically to commit suicide." All of which is to say, even within seconds of "meeting" Waldman, she's so personable and easy to talk with that even the most awkward person (me) feels instant relief.

Perhaps the relative ease of our conversation was due to the fact that after having read A Really Good Day, I already felt like I knew Waldman, so closely did I follow along with her as she tracked the month of her life she spent microdosing LSD, and the effects this experience had on everything from her depression and chronic shoulder pain to the difficulties she was having in her marriage. Though her writing career includes several works of fiction and editorializing on topics ranging from Middle Eastern politics to mental health issues and her larger professional career is similarly impressive, with long stints as an esteemed public defender and as a professor at UC Berkeley's law school, where she taught courses on drug legislation, Waldman is no stranger to revealing the most intimate parts of her personal life—even when the revelations spark controversy and public outcry, as they did over a decade ago when Waldman wrote an essay for the New York Times Modern Love column comparing maternal and spousal love (Waldman is the mother of four children; her husband is novelist Michael Chabon).

That Times column was the first piece of Waldman's work that I'd read; I was immediately intrigued. It wasn't just that Waldman's writing was lucid, funny, and smart (it was), but also, it was the fact that Waldman had an impressive facility when it came to revealing the myriad complexities of what is, to many people, a binary issue. In the case of the Modern Love column, that issue was love (and the fact that so many readers think that loving a spouse and loving your children has to be an either/or situation); in the case of A Really Good Day, that issue is drug use. It's startling that even today so many people think about drug use as something simplistically moral (i.e. drugs are bad or drugs are good). The reality is so much more complicated and deserves to be treated with the kind of intellectual engagement and respect that an issue of such vital importance demands.

Perhaps, at first glance, readers might wonder if that's what Waldman has done with A Really Good Day. The book's basic premise is that Waldman microdosed LSD for one month and kept a journal of sorts about her experience. It would be easy to wonder if this would just be a rambling personal essay that involves lots of disjointed scenes depicting visual hallucinations run rampant. In a time when even the New Yorker publishes dispatches from the frontline of Brooklyn ayahuasca ceremonies, this is an understandable assumption. But it's also an inaccurate one. Rather, Waldman's book is a combination recounting of her experience following a microdosing regimen created by Santa Cruz psychedelics researcher James Fadiman (Waldman got her dose semi-mysteriously in an "only in NorCal" kind of a way via a man named "Lewis Carroll") and also a fascinating treatise on everything from the devastating side effects of the drug war to the importance of the harm reduction method when treating addiction. Along the way, Waldman also delves into her own history with mental illness, her struggle with chronic pain, problems in her marriage, and her own need to stake out a room on her own. It's never less than a fascinating read, one that's also important for anyone who is interested in the major problems in our country when it comes to drugs and mental illness. Read on to hear Waldman's thoughts on those topics, and also why the Trump election might herald in a disastrous new era in this nation's drug war.

When you started microdosing, you were in a place of desperation, overwhelmed with depression and chronic physical pain. The effects of the chronic pain specifically on your mental state can be catastrophic and take you to the very bottom or even completely out of your normal mood spectrum.

It's so interesting because you're the first interviewer to say that, and I feel like people just don't get it. People don't get what pain is like. So, everyone is like, "Oh yeah, she was in pain. But let's talk about the depression." Which is fine, I can talk a lot about the depression, but, like, those two things were so completely wound up together. One of the major reasons for the depression is the pain, and it's funny because—and I think I was guilty of this before I had experience with it—if someone told you that they had chronic shoulder pain, you're like, "Oh yeah, I've hurt my shoulder before, it's not that big a deal." But you just don't get it unless you've experienced that kind of unremitting, constant, demoralizing, debilitating pain, just what an effect that can have on your life. But that really just changes everything.

I think the connection between that and the way that other psychedelics have been used to treat advanced stage cancer patients is really fascinating. Because those cancer patients are obviously dealing with a lot of psychological angst about approaching the end of life, but they are also dealing with a lot of physical pain. It's interesting to think that by taking these psychedelics, which might be essentially alleviating their physical pain, they could psychologically start to feel better.

It is a psychedelic experiment... the researchers have focused really closely on this kind of spiritual dimension, to the psyche and end of life, and that's totally valid, I think. But I also am really interested in the idea of, whether the psychedelic experience had any impact, not on the sensation of pain but rather on the experience of pain in people who have cancer and are at the end of their life. Like, did it give them a different way to understand their pain that helped them tolerate it more? I would love to see research done about that. We know that ketamine, which is a kind of psychedelic, although a little bit different, is incredibly effective for people with chronic pain. I was actually just speaking to someone whose daughter has a kind of neurological disorder that causes crippling, debilitating pain in your foot. Just your foot. And it started when she was a little girl, but this has defined this young woman's experience of her whole life, and the only thing that helps are regular ketamine infusions. So that's really fascinating. I mean what is it about psychedelics that acts on pain? Now, I can't say that the microdose did anything for my shoulder pain, maybe it was just a coincidence, that it was that month that the pain began to ebb. Without research, I can't link the secession of pain to the taking of the microdose, but it was a pretty marvelous coincidence, don't you think?

I do! So much of what it is that you experienced is deserving of larger study in this country and beyond, and, hopefully, that will start to happen. I think writing about it is an essential step toward getting the attention the topic needs to have. When you first decided to microdose, did you know for sure that you were going to write about it?

No, not right away, I mean, mostly I was just in such a calamitous fog, really, at the beginning. Things were so bad; my marriage was in such crisis, not from my husband's perspective but really from mine. I had decided that it was the last straw and that he was going to leave me and I was just doing everything in my power to make him, you know, make him satisfy my worst fears. I was just being a terrible mother. I was feeling so crappy. I never slept. You know, every time I rolled over at night I would wake up in agony. So, I was just such a complete basket case, all I was focused on was, well, this thing, "Will this crazy, crazy thing make me feel better?" But, then [after beginning to microdose] I felt better so immediately and so suddenly, like, literally on the day that I took it, my mood shifted dramatically, which doesn't usually happen when you have some kind of mood disorder. I was so low, and I felt so much better that it was really striking.

So that was so incredible, that, like, the first day that I took it I was like, "Holy shit, I feel good!" And then I had said to myself, "Okay, you don't have to work in this month." I had been working on a novel for awhile and said, "You're not going to write your book. You're not going to work on it. What you're going to focus on is just write whatever you want." And I am not a journal keeper. I'm a very practical person, and if I'm writing I want to get paid for it, so I've never kept a journal. But I basically gave myself permission to do that this month. I said, "That will be your work. Writing will be your work." So for the first week, or maybe eight to 10 days that was all that I was doing, I was just free writing, and letting myself write about whatever I wanted, and sometimes that was the history of LSD because I was also reading and researching at the same time. And then after about, somewhere between the eighth and 10th day, I looked at what I was creating, and I said, "Oh my god dude, that's a book. You are writing a book." I let myself write about what I wanted to write about, and that's why the book has a structure that I actually really like, now. It covers all these different things. I mean if I had said to my editor, "I want to do this hybrid memoir of mental illness and family and policy discussion," she probably would have been like, "Uh, no. That's not a thing, you can't do that." But at the end, when I had done that and we looked at what I had, she was like, "Oh wait, oh my god, wait this is a thing, this is perfect."

Yeah, it doesn't really lend itself to a super easy synopsis. It's obviously about the month of your microdosing, but it's also an exploration of a marriage and family and self. And then I love how much you get into policy and break down all the stigmas around certain drug types and, like, really talk about how the difference between Adderall and methamphetamine is negligible. I also really really appreciated how deeply you discussed harm reduction as an approach, not only for treating addicts but also as a way to talk about drugs with your kids. 

In a way, that's one of the most important parts of the book for me personally, because I think that that it's really challenging, especially now when kids are dropping dead all the time from heroin use. And, there's a certain element of my audience that's always going to be kind of like, white, you know, the white bourgeoisie, that's where I come from, right, and the reason that we're thinking so much right now about the heroin epidemic is that's who it's hitting. It's really, really important now—and has always been, but even more now—to keep your children alive. As a parent, our most important role is to keep our children alive. And now, as we find ourselves in the midst of this heroin crisis and opiate crisis, keeping our kids alive is even more of a challenge. And I really do believe that the only way to do that is to have a science-based, reason-based, harm reduction policy when it comes to children and teenagers and drugs. So if you say to yourself all the time, My goal here is first and foremost to keep my children alive, I'm not going to have a morality based approach to drugs, I'm going to have an "I don't want a dead kid" approach to drugs. And then, you start to give yourself the tools, you start to give your children the tools to not die. One of the books that I recommend for parents—it's a book written by this young man—is called How To Take Drugs and Not Die. It's a terrifying book for a parent. Not because of the second part, because of the first part. Because it really is, like, here is how to take this drug. Do you want to take heroin? Here's how to take heroin and not die. And I gave that book to my kids, even though it scared the shit out of me, because my imperative in this situation is, no dying. No dying on my watch. 

The whole idea behind moralizing drug use and making it that, you know, not taking drugs is good and taking drugs is bad, really misses the actual moral point, which is that there's nothing more immoral than a dead child. 

And unfortunately, we're in this situation now where Jeff Sessions, about to be the Attorney General, is so retrograde and so destructive in his thinking. Jeff Sessions is a drug war warrior like we haven't seen since the 1970s, it's insane. This is a man who actually said that no good person tries marijuana. Well, so that means hundreds of millions of Americans are not good people? It's so awful, in a country where, you know, simultaneously with the election of this retrograde lunatic we had marijuana legalized in a bunch of states, so this is a really schizophrenic election. And it's so depressing to me because I know that what Jeff Sessions being Attorney General means. I know it's going to mean just a lot more dead kids because, in this opiate crisis, there's only one reasonable way to combat it, and that's not with more criminalization and more aggressive persecution of addicts and prosecution of addicts and amping up the interdiction campaigns in Latin America which only serve to benefit the cartels. We are looking at four years of mounting piles of corpses, and it breaks my heart.

I start to get rage blackouts when I think too much about the federal level because every 10 minutes, there's something new that's happening that's atrocious. 

Every morning I wake up and my first thought of the day is, What fresh hell is this? You know, I reach for my phone to go on the news and I'm like, "What now?" I mean, imagine my surprise last night when I'm like, "Why is the #GoldenShower trending?"

It's absolutely surreal. Something that you talk a lot about in the book is how one reason you're even able to do this experiment and write this book as openly as you did is because of the inherent privilege that comes with being a white woman who is financially stable and of a certain educational background.

Exactly. If you were a young African-American man in Detroit feeling the same pain that I was feeling, feeling the same desperation, and you resorted as I did to an illegal drug, your chances of being prosecuted, your chances of going to jail are so much higher. I mean, you can't even quantify how much higher, they're just infinitely higher, and this book comes from a place of deep privilege as, by the way, does everything in my life, right? I think that's the whole point; I think people are tired of hearing about white privilege, but we can't stop talking about it because, like, my entire life is about white privilege. And I think the only moral way to act in a world where you have benefitted at every moment from the privilege of your race and your economic status is to speak out on behalf of those who haven't, who don't have the same privilege, so that's why I would not have written a book just about how LSD made me feel better. I would only write a book if it was about this experience that also addressed these issues of the war on drugs because I think that is so much more important, and that is my obligation as a citizen who has benefitted from my white privilege. I have to act, always, consciously. Once you start to understand your privilege, it can be incapacitating; when you're young, you come to this understanding of how much easier life has been for you, and that can be a moment where you get, you know, demoralized by your own privilege, and I think at that moment, people can either decide to reject it and just continue to benefit or could decide, "Okay, well then I have to act in a certain way, and I have to pay back, and I can't just benefit from this without trying to compensate." So this is what I've tried to do. In a way, it's a very Jewish concept, although, you know, clearly Jared Kushner doesn't suffer from the same understanding of Judaism, but there's this concept that my parents raised me with which is tikkun olam, which means to repair the world. It maybe sounds a little grandiose, but the concept of tikkun olam means that every individual has the capacity to repair the world and that you have to act in accordance with that obligation. 

Yeah, I feel like Jared Kushner missed that week in Hebrew school. Another thing that I found really powerful in your book were the chapters where you dealt with the issues in your marriage and how microdosing helped you to, sort of, get over your insecurities. I'm thinking of specifically when you and your husband were in therapy, and you had to keep repeating over and over again how you knew that he loved you, and then you kept adding a "but." You just couldn't allow yourself to say "I know you love me," without making it conditional. How do you think the microdosing helped with that?

I wish I knew, I wish. I wish I didn't have to say this, 'cause I find the whole industry so, you know, gross in so many ways, but I really do think it comes down to mindfulness, you know? The current mindfulness industrial complex is so deeply problematic—Ariana Huffington is making money selling massive sleep pods; we are at the end times in the Roman Empire if ever I've seen one—but I do think it came down to that. I don't know whether it's the microdose, because it's never been tested, and maybe it was just the mother of all placebo effects, but for whatever reason, in this month, I was able to achieve, with tremendous amount of work and a tremendous amount of personal resistance, enough distance from my emotions and I managed to move aside the spider webs of my own despair and my own kind of anxiety and sort of narcissistic myopia and see [my husband], and recognize what he was feeling, and not see it through the scrim of my own self-loathing. And it was incredibly powerful. I really understood what the experience of love is for me; it's always been this kind of neediness and anxiety and trying to repair that self-loathing and fill up this vast expanse, this vast empty hole, and because either of the microdose or my placebo-induced state, I was able to understand that and to see him without that for that moment. And that was really profound. It was like, "Oh, this is a person who has his own feelings, and one of his feelings is love for me. Whatever I am, whatever I deserve, none of that matters. It's just that that's what he feels. And it was really transformative. 

A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life by Ayelet Waldman is on sale now